Progressing in T'ai-Chi Ch'uan
By Harvey Kurland
Originally published as "Progressing in Tai Chi Chuan", Black Belt, June 1982, pp. 66-68; 88-89. Updated 2001. Copyright Harvey Kurland 2001
T'ai-chi ch'uan (also spelled taijiquan) is one of the three main forms of Chinese "Internal
The Internal Boxing name was given for those three arts in 1894 by a group of Famous T'ai-chi ch'uan, Hsing-I ch'uan and Pa-kua chang Masters.
family boxing" i.e. Nei Chia Ch'uan (also Nei Jia Quan) or Internal Kung-fu. To the uninitiated it appears weak and simple, but the student soon discovers that learning the art is not as simple as it looks. One of the basic problems is finding a good instructor. That accomplished, two other essentials, are necessary: natural talent, and, probably most important, perseverance.
First question to ask, "Is the teacher certified by a reputable master or organization?" Or did they just study with someone for a while and then go off to teach? Is their teacher reputable?
The beginning student with no previous study of martial arts has very little to go on to find a good instructor. Unfortunately even many great masters make terrible teachers, while some lower ranked teachers are surprisingly better able to impart the information they have� without, of course, being able to take the student very far. For example it is told that Yang Shao Hou (1862-1929) was a great t'ai-chi ch'uan boxer, but very few people could actually learn from him because of his bad temper. During practice he would end up hurting or even killing students. Some expert practitioners, while they themselves are supremely skilled, allow their advanced students to do all the teaching, so students benefit little from the master. So finding a good teacher may be as much up to chance as to research.
The content as well as the quality of instruction in t'ai-chi ch'uan differs widely. For example, one school only teaches a short slow form, another teaches three slow forms, still another teaches full contact sparring - the variations are endless. What is taught and what is not taught often come down to the interests and training of the teacher. A fighter may teach fighting, a poet may teach moving meditation. Many new instructors teach purely a calisthenics type form with little internal energy training. You have to find a school with objectives similar to your own, so the best idea is to determine what your own objectives are before you begin looking for a school to help you fulfill them.
The one way to judge a school is by its students. If the students are of good technical quality and seem reasonably proficient, the instructor is most likely competent. If the students are of poor quality, the best idea might be to keep looking. On the other hand, sometimes students do not remain long enough to learn much, and t'ai-chi, like other arts, tends to have a high turnover of students. Then, too, the instructor may be technically excellent but a poor or mediocre teacher, so an advanced student may be able to learn at his school while a beginner would be lost. Choosing a school is a complex business, and it is easy to make a bad choice. In all this, it is important not to be too rigid mentally. If you feel you're learning, stick with a school and don't give up on the art, even if you don't always feel like going to class - but don't stick with a school or an instructor if you feel you're in the wrong program for what you hope to gain.
In learning a Chinese art, the student's natural inclination is to look for a Chinese instructor, which may not be a bad rule of thumb in some cases, but also has it draw backs. One problem for the American student is that many Chinese instructors do not communicate very well in English. Learning from such a person, however qualified he/she may be, can be a frustrating experience for some Americans who rely heavily on verbal information and verbal feedback. There are a number of highly skilled American and Canadian born teachers out there, often with decades of experience in the martial art they teach. One such instructor, teaching in the Seattle area, who has attracted a number of students including many advanced t'ai-chi ch'uan students from Chinese instructors, is Andrew Dale.
Dale can be seen early in the morning in Seattle's Woodland Park, going through his exercises. As the morning mists lift from the cedar grove, other people join him in t'ai-chi ch'uan practice. Dale, with over a dozen years (in 1978) of experience studying the internal systems of t'ai-chi, pa kua. hsing-i and aikido, is an aikido instructor for the Washington Aikikai as well as a teacher of Chinese arts. For the last six years he has studied with Tchoung Ta-chen of the Chinese Tai Chi Chuan Association based in Canada and has lived in the Seattle area since receiving his teaching certificate in the art. While based in Seattle, he has had students mostly martial arts instructors in their own right traveling from other parts of Washington and from as far south as Los Angeles to study with him. His strongpoint, many of his students feel, is his ability to learn, assimilate new knowledge, and then pass it on in such a way that others can understand.
Dale does not believe in holding information back. "There are no real secrets in these arts," he says. 'It's all there to learn, and the only secret is practice." There is a new generation of instructors, Dale feels, partly American and partly not, who are trying to increase the overall quality of students rather than withholding any knowledge or holding anyone back. Of teachers who don't like to teach everything they know, he says, "These people for one reason or another feel they should hold back their students or limit their progress. Perhaps they feel threatened by their students and therefore keep back certain teachings; but in truth in the internal systems you can teach everything to a hundred students, but only a few will understand and gain the knowledge. These are the motivated and sincere, and the others will select themselves out. The ones who hold on should be given anything they can learn."
In Dale's own experience, his teacher, Grandmaster Tchoung Ta-tchen, did not hold any knowledge back. Tchoung told him and over 50 others that he wanted them to be more, not less, skillful than himself. Tchoung felt that this was the only way to prevent the degeneration of his art. Relating case histories, he mentioned families that had taught t'ai-chi ch'uan. Each generation holding back something, until three generations down the line the art was watered down and weak. He did not want that to happen to his students. But by the time Dale had progressed to the point of receiving his instructor's certificate (there are no belt systems in t'ai-chi beware of teachers who use a belt system) only four other students were with him. All the others had dropped out. From over 50 original students plus hundreds of others, the selection process had taken place, leaving four qualified instructors who received official certification.
Some of those who dropped out started classes of their own anyway. Some just did not finish the system but had good basic skills to teach. Others who did not have correct skills will just help perpetuate a lower quality of tai chi. They may be students who wanted to be "instant masters" not an uncommon expectation, according to Dale. As he puts it, "A lot of students start taking a class thinking they will become instant masters, some think their instructors have some magical teaching to impart, others read a few books and think they understand the art. But in reality, only constant, diligent practice and dedication will allow a student to learn, understand, and progress. That is the real secret."
A number of members of the NWTCCA (Northwest T'ai-Chi Ch'uan Association) feel as Dale does, that you can never reach the limits of knowledge - so most are perpetual students. learning from other instructors, masters, and even their own students. There is always more to learn, and the knowledge is endless.
There are many types of students, some have a self-defeating learning style. One type of student who is a product of the Western mind-set is the "Analyst." This is the intellectual who spends more time talking, and discussing than practicing, forgetting that t'ai-chi ch'uan is an experiential art, you have to live it, you can't just think or talk about it. Dale states that, "Tai chi is the quality of movement and awareness. Students look at someone good and think that they can copy him. But that's like looking into your neighbor's yard, seeing delicious fruits, and wanting to have a crop like that but doing nothing about it, reading books and letting your own yard choke with weeds." The reader of books may go out and teach tai chi to unwitting students but he will be perpetuating a mediocre art. There is room for analysis, but it must be balanced with correct practice - yin/yang.
The opposite extreme is the school with an instructor who wears a perpetual scowl. Intimidating his students, he does not set the stage for good learning or personal growth. Rather, classes should be taught in a relaxed atmosphere. Stress and fear have been shown to reduce one's capacity for learning, creating additional stress in an already overstressed world. An instructor needs to maintain a healthy environment for learning.
There are a number of "Styles" of t'ai-chi ch'uan, depending on the specific lineage of the system being taught. The most popular are the Yang, orthodox Wu, and new Wu systems. Dale teaches a Yang style, which is dubbed the "Double form" which is -a symmetrical set of 273 movements taught to him by Grandmaster Tchoung Ta-Tchen. The more typical Yang style teaches a one-sided, 108 or 85 movement set. When done at the proper speed, his form takes over an hour to perform. He also teaches a short-form symmetrical set that takes only about 20 minutes. After learning the basic slow form at Dale's class, one learns "pushing hands" (tui shou).
Pushing hands is a partner exercise. It helps the student to learn stability, relaxation and sensitivity. There are a number of basic exercises to learn and practice. Some schools use pushing hands as a form of competition, even going so far as to paint circles on the floor to see how far the student can push his partner, and giving points based on the distance pushed. Dale feels that this type of competition tends to make students tight and stiff, reversing the positive effect of dynamic relaxation. While pushing hands teaches sensitivity similarly to chi sao in tang long and Wing Chun styles of kung-fu, it is done in a relaxed manner, with use of strength frowned upon. The dynamic balance or stability of the student increases with practice, and should provide a subtle but effective form of power. Advanced students will practice free-form pushing hands, but this is by no means the same as sparring, and proficiency at pushing hands does not necessarily mean competence at sparring. What it does teach is to relax under stress, to use just enough energy and force to guide one's movements. During practice the concept should not be competition but harmony with one's partner. Your awareness should be here, in this place and time, with no thought to past or future. Through the sensitivity gained from such practice, the student develops the ability to "listen" to the partner through contact. He becomes able to flow into weakness, a harmonious interaction that is the embodiment of the principle of yin and yang.
After leaving pushing-hands practice, the students learn the two person form called "San Shou". Then they study the t'ai-chi tao - long knife. This big knife is actually a single-edged broadsword, which is supposed to teach extension of the mind beyond the body. Dale teaches two knife forms. Then the student learns the two-person application form and the subtle interplay of defense and attack, using tai chi principles. The student will go on to learn the chien or double-edged sword, the walking stick or short stick, the double sword, pa kua, pa kua sword, hsing-I, and free forms. At this point the student should be practicing four hours a day. Later he will learn a more aggressive version of pushing hands, which includes applications from chin-na.
Regardless of the specific activity, though, one is reminded of Tchoung's philosophy that tai chi is concerned with promoting good health, relaxation, stress reduction and poise, with self-defense playing a markedly lesser role in the modern world.
Tchoung Ta-tchen stressed that students should learn one technique at a time, step by step. The most important concept for both students and instructors to remember is not to rush through training but to learn slowly, thoroughly, step by step. Students who learn too much too fast do not assimilate well and have a poor foundation for future learning. They get sloppy and are confused as to techniques and application, so they cannot attain the proper clarity of mind. The structure of study should be gradual and thorough, for after learning one step well the student progresses naturally to the next. Understanding the function of each movement facilitates the learning process, too. Too many students learn abstract ballet like movements that have no real meaning to them, causing confusion and lack of precision. But by understanding the applications it is easier to remember the correct performance of each technique.
It is important to teach proper breathing as well as mental imagery. Proper breathing, in through the nose, down to the lower abdomen, should be taught in coordination with the movements from the very beginning. According to Dale, instructors who do not teach breathing methods either do not understand the art or do not care if their students progress. Tchoung stressed the proper mechanics of breathing and ch'i kung. Dale finds it indisputable that students who are familiar with breathing techniques learn faster and gain greater fluidity of movement than those who aren't.
Tchoung Ta-tchen stressed to Dale and the other teachers that proper body alignment is also a significant aspect of learning t'ai-chi ch'uan. Poor body mechanics can stress the joints and cause chronic joint problems, especially in the knees. Tchoung drilled and repeatedly corrected students with improper knee and back alignment.
The knee is a hinge joint, which moves well in only one plane of motion. Knees should be in natural alignment with the toes, never going beyond the toes. The knee should never be twisted, as such movement only causes short-term and long-term problems. Students must guard that they have the proper knee alignment.
Back position is important. The back should be straight, head held high, with a feeling of energy suspending the head from above. The body should be light and relaxed, but not dead or limp - dead relaxation is not what is meant here by relaxation. All stiffness and strength must be emptied from the upper torso and should sink to the soles of the feet, yet the body should feel alive and full of vigor.
Tchoung would demonstrate the applications of all the form techniques for students. He felt knowing the meaning of the movements was important to correct performance. Though stressed the use of them could only be accomplished with diligent practice. Tchoung taught the pushing hands and the San Shou form to make students more fluent in applications.
In self-defense, t'ai-chi ch'uan movements should be natural and relaxed, like snapping one's fingers. The training allows power to be issued from any position, giving way to attack and counterattacking with great efficiency and power. Being countered by a proficient t'ai-chi ch'uan master such as Tchoung is like being engulfed in a tidal wave, it is allover you and there is little you can do about it, your every move is turned against you. The harnessing of ch'i, or primal energy into producing "chin" or internal power, allows a tremendous amount of power to be generated with no windup or display of focus. Combined with heightened sensitivity gained from pushing hands, this gives the t'ai-chi ch'uan adept what he needs to control the situation. Though, all this is a fairly rare level of expertise, as one has to be truly expert to use most forms of tai chi effectively in self-defense. But it is a level that is not totally out of reach for the dedicated, conscientious, careful student.
What are the most important points for progressing in tai chi chuan? They are: Proper instruction; perseverance; and quality, not quantity, of movement.
The Author, Harvey Kurland is a Clinical Exercise Physiologist. He was Director of Exercise Physiology for the National Athletic Health Institute. Kurland was certified to teach t'ai-chi ch'uan by Grandmaster Tchoung Ta-tchen. Currently teaches at the University of California Riverside and Loma Linda University Drayson Center.