Changing the way I teach.
I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that teaching in too basic a way in order to make tai chi and qigong accessible to new students is a mistake. I say ‘rapidly coming to the conclusion’, but I think it’s taken me about 15 years.
That’s how I was taught, and yes, it works to a certain extent, but you’re only learning patterns, you rarely get to feel the sensation of the body working in a unified way, and you certainly don’t get to experience intention effortlessly guiding your movements.
Not too surprising really, as the method of teaching is itself fragmented.
For example, here’s the instructions for moving from one Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane to a second one in the 24-step form (feel free to skip it, it’s just a description of movement):
1. Starting from the first Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane, sit back on to the rear right foot.
2. Move the weight forwards again on to the left foot, and whilst doing so, turn the foot outwards by approximately 45 degrees. As you do so, fold the upper arm, bending it at the elbow and turning the palm down with the forearm approximately parallel to the ground. The body is now facing the corner.
3. Move the weight 100% on to the left foot, and move the lower arm through in the same direction as the turned out foot. Bring the rear leg alongside the front foot without touching the ground if possible.
4. Continue to move the rear foot forwards so as to step ahead of the other foot. In a horizontal rising arc, sweep the lower arm out via the left side to finish forwards with palm up so that it is above the (newly placed) right leg. Push the palm of the other hand down beside you. Etc. etc.
The above only describes a series of movements, and probably not very well. There is no subtlety, and it’s only passing from one posture to another.
There is no explanation of:
- the feeling that you should be experiencing,
- where you should be relaxing,
- how to relax,
- how to achieve complete stability in the movement as you step through with the rear leg,
- how to make the movement work from the core/centre,
- how to sink and lift your qi,
- how to connect the arms with the legs so that they work together,
- how to connect shoulders with hips,
- how to step correctly so that your qi moves correctly,
- and what the function of the move is so that you direct your energy appropriately.
It’s the difference between learning movements and learning a skill… Which reminds me of a student whom I taught when I was new to teaching.
I was teaching the Yang 108 Form – the ‘Long Form’, and every week, the person I was teaching wanted to race ahead with the next moves in the form. I was too new to it all to slow down the learning process, and as a result we completed the entire form in 2 terms – fairly amazing as it took me 2 years to learn the form!
At the end of it I was expecting him to say something along the lines of, “Let’s go into it in a bit more detail now.” But instead he said, “Thanks for that; now I know tai chi.”
So I’ve begun to teach the minutiae to all. I wasn’t sure about it at first. I thought it would be too much for most, and occasionally it is, but I can also see that for those who persist, it will be much easier in the long run, and far more satisfying.
Because I learnt via the ‘basic’ teaching method means that for years I’ve also taught by the same method. Because it’s basic, most of the nuances are missing. As I gradually discovered them over time, it meant that I had to undo my old habits.
For nearly everyone, this can be very difficult. It’s like being inside a closed box and trying to see outside it; you know what’s inside the box, you’re familiar with it, but your preconceptions of what might be outside the box can only be based on what you already know. In other words you’re learning with an unclean slate.
I have seen my older students struggle with having to rethink my previous ignorance.
So I started to wonder what the point was in simply teaching beginners in the same way that I’d been taught, and began to experiment with putting much more detail into the classes.
It worked well because people can only take in what they can take in, and, whatever level that happens to be, they work with that. To put it another way, people hear what they’re able to hear, and no more, and what they both hear and see is based entirely upon their own received experience to date.
It can’t really be any other way – it’s nigh on impossible to make a large jump in consciousness.
I don’t know how true this is, but there’s a story of Magellan arriving on the islands close to what is now known as the Magellan Straits (I have also heard the same story being located in Tasmania; perhaps this was Abel Jans Tasman’s experience rather than Magellan’s).
Apparently the islanders had never seen large ships before; ships were completely out of their range of consciousness or imagination, so they literally couldn’t see them. The arrival of Magellan’s sailors was therefore almost magical, as they seemed to come from nowhere.
I’ve experienced a version of this in classes many times (and no, a load of sailors didn’t suddenly appear). I’ll say something in a class, and someone who’s been doing tai chi for years will say, “You’ve never said that before!”
But I have, probably on many occasions, and in many different ways.
And I’ve also noticed it in my own learning. Something that I’ve heard before but interpreted in one way, suddenly takes on a new meaning, and I realise that previously I’d entirely missed the point.
Details of Tai chi and Qigong classes with James Drewe here.