Ng Family Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan

Stuart is both a student of, and instructor in, the Ng Family's take on Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan, under the instruction of Robert Earl Taylor.

Follow his discussions on studying the art and also on his experiences teaching the art to the next generation.

Lighting The Way Home

Thanks to the generous whip-round of staff when I left Box UK last week, I’ve been able to order myself a camcorder for recording Tai Chi practice and (eventually) lessons. I can’t thank Benno, Dan, Judy and all of my former colleagues enough for this; it’s going to help me improve the daily lives of many, many people over the coming years.

After a lot of indecision, I’ve ordered the Canon HF-10 from Amazon.co.uk. It has two features that I hope will prove essential:

  • 30p mode (30 frames a second), which should look great on modern flat-screen TVs, and is a great frame rate for content created for the web
  • a microphone input, allowing to use Vincent’s boom mic’s if I want to record sound live

It’s a solid-state camcorder, recording to SDHC memory cards instead of tape or disk. No moving parts should mean a lot less chance of failure for a few years at least (my poor Sony handycam died the death of all moving parts last year). It’s high-def too, which is great for compatibility with my MacBook Pro.

The camera isn’t actually out yet; hopefully I’ll get it by the end of April, which gives me a few weeks to put some thought into what to do with it when it arrives 🙂

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What’s In A Move?

Posted by Stuart Herbert on March 19th, 2008 in Teaching.

In the Ng Family Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan that I practise, we have the following sequence of moves:

  • Squatting single whip
  • Snake creeps down
  • Golden pheasant stands on one leg left

I’ve been preparing written notes for my students this week, and two questions have been on my mind as a result. Where do each of these moves end (and the next one start), and why does it matter?

It matters to me because I don’t want to be the latest in a lengthening line of instructors who leaves the art in a worse state than I found it. Yang Luchan, the founder of Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan, seems also to have been its greatest practitioner. Those who have come after him have passed on a lesser art each and every time, and it has gotten to the point that much of what is taught as Tai Chi today does not stand up to scrutiny against the Tai Chi classics. (Pick up any modern book on Tai Chi, look at the photos, and tell me whether or not you’re seeing fundamentals like single weight being evidenced).

The thing that always impresses me about my teacher is that he’s always insisted on trying to get down to the core of the art as we understand it, to improve on the information we have. Something is the way it is until new information comes along. In light of new information, things must change. We don’t own the art – it is our duty to hold it in trust for the next generation. Whilst it’s in our care, we should not make it worse!

In classical Yang style, squatting single whip seems to be nothing more than another name for snake creeps down; two names describing the very same move. We break the move into two parts – squatting single whip where we lower our stance by pivoting on alternate heels and toes, and snake creeps down where we use the left arm to defend against a kick. Should we use the one name for both parts? And where exactly does golden pheasant start?

However we decide, we have to start with the questions.

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Reflection In Action

Posted by Stuart Herbert on March 13th, 2008 in Teaching.

It sounds bloody obvious, but when you’re teaching something, it’s essential to keep gauging the mood of the room to understand whether or not the students “get it”, whatever “it” might be. If they don’t get it, then it’s the teacher’s responsibility to change tack and on the spot come up with another approach, another description … to make whatever changes are required; and to keep changing it until the teaching is successful.

This is what teaching courses call reflection in action, and it’s something I’m going to be spending a lot of time doing in my classes through to the summer.

19 weeks through the 30 week course, we’ve finally reached the parts of the Tai Chi form that I’ve rarely taught before. Nearly all of my teaching up to now has been teaching beginners the first parts of the form. This year is the first time I’ve taught a class by myself, and had the opportunity to see them all the way through to the end of the year. It’s both a steep learning curve and a thoroughly enjoyable test of my own understanding of our Tai Chi form 🙂

I had a good example of having to reflect in action on Tuesday evening. The new moves this week were low pat right, high pat right, low pat left, high pat left and punch low. The stances for these are almost the same stances that our students have been using for the previous 18 weeks – front stance, back stance and cat stance. (The differences are in the two heel pivots in front of each high pat). So that’s where I started, but after a couple of minutes it was clear that it was the wrong approach to teaching these particular moves.

What was wrong? The first place to look is always to the students, to try to learn what their take on the teaching experience is. (As teachers, we have our own opinions, but they’re not the whole story. We must take into account how our students feel, otherwise we are ignoring half of the teacher/student equation!) Their feedback was clear: without the accompanying arm movements, the stepping on its own seemed harder to absorb. But, we’d already tried arms and legs together a little earlier, and that hadn’t been much success either.

But the students were absolutely right. The underlying problem was that the stepping didn’t make any sense for these particular moves. With the arms, the stepping sort-of makes sense, because you’re peforming the whole move. Without the arms, the stepping seems aimless, because you shift your weight forward, back, and then forward again before actually taking a step. Up to now, all the footwork the students have learned has been about actually stepping forward, sideways, or turning around. With its rocking back and forth, this footwork is both the same (it’s the same stances) but different. And I hadn’t grasped that in advance 🙁

How to find a fix it? Robert always told me to teach what I do, not what I say, and it remains excellent advice to this day. When I’m teaching, I’ll often answer a question by attempting the particular move first, and then by talking about what I’ve just demonstrated. I’ve also added the advice (happily stolen from watching Robert teach) that I should always make the demonstration relevant to both aspects of Tai Chi – health and martial (i.e. put the learning into context). Sometimes it helps to exaggerate the move; the (often unintentional) humour can lighten the mood of everyone, and it stops us being constrained by the strict formality of the form. I guess you could call it trying to look at the move out of the box.

The solution was to stop talking about stances and focus instead on actually rocking forward and back. This change in the instruction better reflected the purpose of the move, and within a few minutes the class was able to add the arm movements back in. By the end of the class, everyone was able to run through the form from the very beginning all the way through to the end of punch low. I’m really pleased with everyone’s progress, and I’m looking forward to that magical evening when we all play the entire form through together for the first time. It isn’t far away now.

So that’s reflection in action. It’s a small thing, and like I said, something that’s bloody obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many teachers stick to one approach and are unable to think on their feet and adapt as they go along.

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Cognitive Science and Google

Posted by Stuart Herbert on March 5th, 2008 in Teaching.

I picked up a copy of Stephen M. Kosslyn’s Clear and to The Point: 8 Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint Presentations recently. Professor Kosslyn is Chair of the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and a leading authority on the nature of visual mental imagery and visual communication.

These are two areas of cognitive science that are particularly useful to anyone who teaches Tai Chi. As instructors, we teach primarily by demonstration – we literally communicate visually with our students. What we communicate, and the way we do it, make or break us as effective teachers. A key aspect of teaching the martial aspects of the form to beginners is to get them to imagine that they are applying their technique to an opponent who is standing in front of them (or beside them, depending on the technique, of course). We ask our students to have a visual mental image of their opponent at all times. Without that image, the techniques practiced will miss the mark.

His advice on escaping from PowerPoint Hell is built around eight key principles:

  1. The Principle of Relevance
  2. The Principle of Appropriate Knowledge
  3. The Principle of Salience
  4. The Principle of Discriminability
  5. The Principle of Perceptual Organisation
  6. The Principle of Compatibility
  7. The Principle of Informative Changes
  8. The Principle of Capacity Limitations

I’m going to explore each of these principles (and how they can be applied to teaching Tai Chi) in a series of follow-up posts, but I can already testify that they work extremely well. I used these principles to design the 20 minute assessed microteach that I did on Monday evening, and I passed with an ‘A’ grade! (The 20 minute assessed microteach is part of the grading for the Adult Teacher qualification I’m currently studying for, on the ET01: Introduction to Teaching course). If you have to present or teach, I can’t urge you enough to go out and get this book.

What does this have to do with Google? Er, nothing, really 🙂 Just that Google’s part of the other news for this week.

I’ve finally registered tenprinciplestaichi.com, and over the summer I’ll be building a website for the Tai Chi school. The plan is to keep it simple: a few pages about the school and our classes, and then a protected area where my students will be able to download electronic copies of the course notes and some videos too. Rather than create all the web pages and underlying software by hand, I’ve decided to build the website using the new Google Sites. I’ll let you know when the website is up and running.

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Many Tai Chi schools put a page on their website describing the benefits of learning Tai Chi. These pages are aimed at potential students, and normally contain lengthy lists of ways that Tai Chi can improve your health. But, all too often, these lists aren’t qualified at all; they do not back up the claim with scientific evidence or testimony. They’re simply the word of the instructor(s) of the particular Tai Chi school.

It doesn’t mean that the claims are bogus, but it goes against one of the core teaching principles that Robert always hammers into me (into the nicest possible way!): I must teach only what I can evidence.

As I’m not a doctor myself, I’ve started searching the Internet for what other people are reporting about the benefits of taking up Tai Chi. I’m limiting myself specifically to reported medical studies, or first-hand testimony. You can find a list of the benefits so far on my new Benefits for Health page.

I have many more sites to add to this list, and a lot of detail to add as well. If you know of any additional studies or reports that are worth a mention, please let me know by leaving a comment below.

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Video of Tai Chi Applications

Posted by Stuart Herbert on February 24th, 2008 in Applications.

If you’re curious about how the Tai Chi form can be used as a martial art, head on over to Luminous Moon’s blog. She’s just posted a video showing some of the martial applications of Tai Chi, created by Master Jesse Tsao from Tai Chi Healthways in California. The video is about 3 minutes long, and manages to fit in a number of different moves from the form and their applications.

Well worth a look.

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Why We Do Things The Way We Do

Posted by Stuart Herbert on February 20th, 2008 in Teaching, Technique.

This week was week 16 (out of 30) for my beginners’ class. It’s the first week back after half term, and it’s bloody freezing (well, for the UK anyway) outside by 6pm on an evening. It would be more than understandable for folks to drop out … but they haven’t. In fact, they’ve been spreading the word about the class, and our numbers went up again this week. If our new beginners come back next week, that brings the class up to 15 regular students on a Tuesday night. I’m really grateful to my students this year; this is my first year of teaching a public class on my own, and they continue to be fantastically supportive as I get to grips with things.

I think I’m going to need a bigger hall for next September, if I’m going to run the Year 2 class alongside next year’s beginners’ class!

Robert often told me that one of appeals of Tai Chi is that beginners stuff is the advanced stuff. If you’ve been playing the form for years, or its your first night in a class, what you’re learning is the same stuff. It really helps with a mixed ability class, because you can do something like a walking drill and everyone benefits. Walking drills are the first thing I teach anyone joining the class, and even those who have been with us for a couple of years now need a refresher and some pointers for improvement 🙂

We did a walking drill last night, and I broke the class up into three groups.

  • Those enjoying their first night with us were simply concentrating on the three main stances that we teach (cat stance, back stance and front stance).
  • The rest of the beginners were asked to ensure that they stepped toe to heel and shoulder width apart at each step. (“Ensure” is a gross over-simplification; I must remember to elaborate on that in a future blog post).
  • My intermediate group were also asked to ensure that they picked up their legs to waist height with each step.

The usual explanation for picking up the leg to waist height is that you’re stepping over the fallen foe that you’ve just dispatched (well, it is a martial art after all :), and for those uncomfortable with the martial aspects of the art, there’s always the explanation that picking up the leg is good for your health and range of movement (the use it or lose it principle).

They’re good reasons, but they’re not really why we do it.

The group has walked down one end of the hall, and they’ve turned around and are making their way back towards me, when Leon comes to a halt. Although he’s in the middle group, he’s been doing the waist-high stepping as he walks. It’s one of those lightbulb moments, and they’re the reason anyone who teaches loves their vocation. Excitedly, he catches my eye, and the ear of everyone around him, and explains what he’s just discovered.

The reason we lift our leg to waist height is because, when we put our foot back down on the floor, the foot goes into the right place every time.

It’s simplicity itself. We standardise our movements so that we get consistent results. We measure our movements against our own physical dimensions, because that works for everyone. And we internalise the movement (pick up the leg to waist height) because it’s much less effort / workload to execute consistently than externalising it (step over the corpse in front of us).

These points apply to everything we do in our daily practice, which is far easier to say than it is to actually do 🙂

As teachers, we can’t always tell our students points like these. We have to do our best to create the right circumstances for the students to experience the rule for themselves. As Robert told me just before Christmas, a rule has to be felt for it to be truly understood. Wise words indeed.

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It’s half-term this week, which means no teacher training class on Monday night, and no Tai Chi class on Tuesday night. This gives me a week off to work on the class notes for the next half term, and get everything organised for when (not if) my class is inspected.

I’ve been into Staples and picked up three of their excellent new hard-wearing ring binders. At 4.99 each, they’re very expensive, but the new rubber coating and the four-hole binder inside will ensure that my notes survive the effort of being lugged to and from class for 30 weeks every year. All I have to do now is fill them 🙂

Why three binders?

  1. In Year 1 – Beginners’ Tai Chi – I’m teaching my students how to play the form. I already have lesson plans prepared for each of the 30 weeks that they’ll be studying with me; these lesson plans double up as the notes that the students get at the end of each half-term. So, folder #1 will have my copy of the lesson plans, plus additional sheets so that I can scribble down notes about what needs changing for next year.
  2. In Year 2 – Intermediate Tai Chi – the plan is to teach my students the ten key principles behind our form. That’s quite ambitious for a 30 week course! During the summer break, I’ll be working on lesson plans for each of the 30 weeks, and these will go into folder #2, along with the obligatory sheets for scribbling down notes about how to improve the lessons for next year.
  3. The final binder will hold the Individual Learning Plans and attendance records for each of my students. No, I’ve no idea what an Individual Learning Plan is (more on that in a minute), but I do know that it’s something we’re asked to produce when we’re inspected.

Whoever said that UK teachers had too much free time on their hands? 🙂

To be honest, I don’t mind the paperwork as such. I’ve chosen to teach Tai Chi through the Lifelong Learning programme, and that means accepting the paperwork that goes with it. When you’re involved with government (either local or national), bureaucracy is part of its nature. Accepting something’s nature is part of how I practice the Taoist philosophy that sits behind Tai Chi.

What I do mind is just how badly prepared we are for it. There’s a lot of room for improvement, specifically in designing and running a course that provides practical support and advice to new tutors joining the Lifelong Learning programme. We need a detailed induction course that covers a wide range of practical issues that aren’t covered in the teacher training course.

A great example of this are Individual Learning Plans. As best as I can tell, they are not covered at all during the 12 week teacher training course that we all have to attend. (The course is great, by the way, and when the time comes, I’ll be requiring all of my senior students who want to teach Tai Chi to attend). They are definitely not covered in the recommended course textbooks. They are frequently mentioned in Ofsted reports, but they’re not mentioned in the brand new Lifelong Learning UK standards. I was invited to a seminar on ILPs this month, but as I work full-time during the day, it wasn’t possible to attend at all. Thankfully, somewhere on the net, there’ll be the information I need to design an ILP template that I can use with each of my students. But I’m one of the lucky one on the course; I’m comfortable using a computer. I’m not certain how many of my colleagues would be able to track these down online.

If there’s one point Robert absolutely hammered into me (in the nicest possible way, I must quickly add!) about teaching Tai Chi, it’s this: I am to teach what I do, not what I say. The students must be able to look at me and see me doing the very things I’m asking them to learn. If I cannot evidence it, then it doesn’t exist for all intents and purposes. This is why, in my class, we don’t specifically teach anything about the manipulation of chi. We can’t evidence such manipulation. (At this point, fellow Tai Chi players around the world are planning to burn me at the stake for such heresy 🙂 )

The nature of Yin and Yang means that some experiences will be good, and some will be bad. No experience is good all the time, and no experience is bad all the time. There’s always a little bit of Yin in Yang, and vice versa. If we are suitably prepared, we can learn from the bad as well as from the good; but only if we learn to tell one from the other, and to accept both for what they are.

My experience with ILPs helps me understand why Robert’s point about teaching Tai Chi is absolutely spot on, and why it is something that I must never ever deviate from. We can learn from the bad, but given a choice, we’d rather learn from the good.

On a different topic, I’m planning on using next week’s blog entry to talk a bit about the benefits of playing Tai Chi. Whether you already play Tai Chi or not, I hope there’ll be something of interest for you.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s still ten more minutes left today for me to get some paperwork done … 🙂

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Good news again this week … we’ve had another new starter join the class. I think that brings us up to twelve regular students in the class now. If you’re in the Barry or Cardiff area, and you’re looking to join a friendly and relaxed Tai Chi group, you’re most welcome. I’d better put together a page with details of the class!

I had a lucky find at the weekend. Whilst sorting through a (rather large!) pile of unopened mail, my wife found a Tai Chi book that I’d bought some time ago and completely forgotten about.

The Complete Book of Tai Chi, by Wong Kiew Kit, claims to be a complete guide to the principles and practice of Tai Chi Chuan. Although I think it falls a little short of this, it’s still one of my favourite books, and there’s plenty in there that I hope will help me gain more benefit from my personal practice over the coming years.

The book essentially covers the following areas:

  • Tai Chi history
  • Chi and Chi Kung
  • Tai Chi Chuan as a martial art
  • Explanations of the forms of the five main Tai Chi styles (Chen, Yang, Wu, Wu, and Sun)

It’s this breadth of content that gives rise to the “complete” claim, and it certainly packs a lot of detail and illustrations into its 317 pages, but I think the combination of both a lack of depth in some areas and commentaries that repeat more than they explain (an honourable tradition in these type of books 🙂 ) means that this book complements rather than replaces other essential Tai Chi books. To be fair, I can’t imagine a “complete” book of Tai Chi even being possible. My teacher Robert Earl Taylor can easily spend many hours looking at and lecturing on just one move in the form; it would take many volumes just to capture that level of information on paper.

Although it has come up in other reviews, I’m not going to criticise the book for being difficult for beginners to benefit from. I keep recalling my own experience when starting out with Tai Chi. My teacher told me what I needed to know, and when I checked my library of books I could always see that the books agreed with him. (I was always impressed by that, as I knew that Robert had had to work out many of these things for himself from first principles). But I didn’t have the experience to really “get” what he was telling me in those early years, and it definitely wasn’t because of the language he used. We “get” things through experiences over time, which encourage our brains to remodel their neural connections to help us in our pursuits. It’s an extremely difficult challenge to create a book on any subject that has substantial meaning for both the beginner and the adept as a result.

So what do I like about it? First and foremost, I like the practical advice in the stances, chi kung and application chapters of the book. As a student of the art, I have many many gaps in my own knowledge, and this book is going to point me in the right direction for plugging one or two of those. Although I’m not sure of the practical value of it, I’m also taken in by the documentation of all five major Tai Chi styles. I’m a sucker for scraps of information about Tai Chi’s history and evolution, and this book feeds that appetite amply!

I have to say that this is also one of the most beautifully presented books I’ve ever read – martial arts or otherwise. It’s a small point perhaps, but it does make reading the book that little bit more effortless!

I’ve setup a little Tai Chi book shop on Amazon, where you can order any of the Tai Chi books that I personally own and would recommend. Over the coming weeks, I’ll blog about each of the books in the shop, and what it is about each book that does it for me.

If you’d like to recommend any Tai Chi books that I haven’t listed in the shop, please mention them in the comments below, and I’ll take a look. Although there’s no substitute for practice and experience, I get a lot of pleasure out of reading Tai Chi books, and I’m always interested in hearing about books that I’ve not come across before.

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Sorry about the delay on this week’s blog post. I was planning to post a presentation I recently gave on the origins of Tai Chi, but unfortunately I can’t find a way to record the audio for the presentation and still be able to see my speaker’s notes at the same time. I’m sat in my hotel room feeling quite glum about this defeat. One for the weekend, when I’m back home and can hook my MacBook Pro up to a second monitor!

This week’s class was a first for me. It was Week 14 (out of 30). The students I’m teaching are now about half way through their first year of learning Tai Chi; they’ve probably got a good seven or eight minutes of the form that they can now play in one go. And this week we took on a new student, Julie.

Whenever the topic has come up before, I’ve always been reluctant to take on a new student part-way through the year. To help students the most during their first year, they need (and deserve!) the majority of the instructor’s time and attention. That’s fine if you also have an advanced group at the other end of the hall, because they can be left to learn through self-reflection (that’s one of the lessons they need to learn, come to think of it 🙂 ), but I’ve never been confident that I could run two separate beginners’ groups at the same time.

My wife and I were talking about this over lunchtime, and she wisely pointed out that there was nothing for it. Just run one beginners’ group, and anyone who joins late will have to start where everyone else is, learn the same moves going forward as everyone else does, and they’ll just have to come back the following year to do the beginners’ classes that they’ve missed so far. Fortunately, when Julie turned up that evening, she was of the same mind, and quickly fitted in with the group.

So it’s good news this week. Normally, over the 30 weeks, numbers go from around 25 to just a handful by the end of the course. This year – my first teaching the class on my own – at Week 14 we have twelve regulars (up from eleven last week), and if anyone else in the Cardiff, Barry or South Wales area wants to join the class, you’re more than welcome.

And I’ll do my best to get that presentation posted at the weekend, too.

(I’m very interested to learn how other groups cope with this situation. Let me know what your group does in the comments below.)

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