Tag Archives: learning

Teaching Taiji & Qigong.

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.tai-chi-group
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 112very 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 complicated-maths-2be 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.complicated-maths

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.

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Energy, Flow, & Learning

Energy
Energy is flow; without flow there is no energy.  A shortage of energy is therefore partly about a lack of flow … i.e. partial stagnation.

The energy industryLucozade
We are  constantly bombarded by energy foods, energy drinks, energy supplements, energy this and that, and exercises and methods to improve our energy.
More often than not, this seems to make the assumption that it’s okay to continue our lifestyle exactly as before, but, by just doing something new, by including a few additional healthy foods or activities, or by simply changing where we live, we can enhance our energy levels.
So, bearing in mind that our bodies are constructed entirely of what we eat and breathe, it might be worthwhile looking at how to reduce one’s supply of energy!

How do you reduce your energy levels?
Apart from the obvious, i.e. stop eating and drinking entirely, try using or cultivating any or all of the following:

  • Food, drinks, and any other substances that the body finds either hard to break down, hard to assimilate, or toxic
  • An excess of absolutely anything and everything (this includes an excess of exercise)
  • Suppression of elimination (e.g. discharge of toxins via sweating, excretion, etc.)
  • Emotional excess or suppression
  • Musculature that lacks tone, yet requires mobilisation
  • A sedentary lifestyle
  • Poor breathing habits
  • Air quality that causes the lungs to search for oxygen
  • Excess stress
  • Poor quality sleep (due to any of the above)
  • Extreme climatic conditions
  • Fixed attitudes

I realise that there’s a degree of overlap between most of these, and that we hear a lot about most of them, but I’m particularly interested in the last one.  How many times a day do we encounter that cause of stress? Hundreds? Thousands?

Fixed attitudes; inability to change
It’s that second when you find yourself thinking, “I don’t like that!”, or “That can’t be right; it’s not how I’ve done it before”, or “Why did he say that?”, or “That’s no way to behave”, or “What is that person on?”…
This is a major, if not the major, cause of stress.  When we resist something, not only does it persist, itKirlian apple holds us back like an anchor, stopping us from moving on.
I see this happening in myself all the time; I have a fixed idea of how something should be done, and, being instantly biased because I’m judging through a previously accepted set of criteria, find it very difficult to see outside the box.  The very fact that I initially have an opinion makes being open-minded very difficult.

Fixed attitudes & learning
I watch this happen when I’m learning tai chi.
Because I’ve been doing it for 40+ years means that I have a great many pre-conceived ideas of how I should be moving.  I have to consciously switch off what I think I know, so that I can attempt to view with new eyes.  It’s like trying to chew one’s own teeth; you’re using your mind to switch off your mind, whilst simultaneously standing outside yourself to become an observer.
The challenge for me is to catch this moment of lack of acceptance – the moment when I am not being completely open to the new.
If I’m able to catch it, I can see how it solidifies or hardens my attitude, blocking me.
By trying to operate through pre-conceived ideas, I’ve created in myself an energetic dam; I’ve stopped flowing; my inter-meshing with life is compromised; I’ve set myself against my current situation; my ego has got in the way; I’ve stopped learning.

How does this affect tai chi & qigong?
In the martial arts this is referred to as ‘blocking qi’, although this term is usually used to mean a raised shoulder, a tightened pelvis, a locked hip joint, or other problems such as a collapsed neck.
From the TCM (Traditional Chinese Medical) perspective, this blocking of qi causes an imbalance amongst the organs, initially causing loss of energy, and progressing over time to dis-ease, i.e. a lack of ease within the body.

I encounter this all the time, not only when learning, but also when teaching.
I’ve seen some of my students find this very hard, some of them actually leaving.
One student, I particularly remember, left after I’d taught High Pat on Horse slightly differently (as a result of my own lesson with my teacher) saying, “You never used to teach it like that, you’ve changed it.”
She was right; the basic shape of the move was identical, but, not only did it differ in the way that it connected to the moves before and after it, my interpretation of the actual movement had altered to become more circular, more flowing, and more connected to my centre. This was too much for her.
I used to be exactly the same! I wanted it all set in stone – a nice formula, a recipe, so that I ‘knew’ tai chi.

Perspective
To learn though, we have to base learning on something.  I’m not saying that all learning should start from the point of view of a clean slate; it must be built on what we’ve already learnt.
What I am saying is that we should be aware that our perspective on what we have previously learnt will alter, and we shouldn’t be too attached to the ‘old’ perspective.

So why does a ‘fixed attitude’ reduce your energy?
Energy & hose pipes
When teaching, in order to explain how energy functions in the body, I use the analogy of a garden hose pipe.
If, having attached your hose pipe to the tap, you lay it down the length of the garden and then turn the tap on, you get a free flow of water from the end of the pipe.
Hosepipe bentHowever, if there is a bend or kink in the pipe, the flow of water is restricted, and possibly even stopped.

Energy (blood & qi) works in exactly the same in the body; the bend or Muscular spasmkink is tension, whether physical or mental; where there is tension, the flow is restricted.  This could be the acupuncture channels, it could be the blood or nerve supplies, or it could be an ingrained attitude.  Nothing can grow without flow.
The qi is blocked, the water cannot flow in the pipe, the resistance to change (or something different or new) causes tension, and as a result our energy is compromised.

Learning (2)

When going for a lesson with my tai chi teacher, it always intrigues me that, when she’s trying to explain a new concept to me, it almost feels as though I’m on a different planet.

28aHow do you get to grips with a concept that is totally alien to you?  You can only relate it to something that you already know; otherwise it’s like being spoken to in a foreign language, or trying to join in a team sport of which you have absolutely no idea of the rules.

I noticed this particularly when learning some Wu style tai chi recently; to date I have done a lot of Yang style, a fair amount of Sun style, some Chen, some Wudang, and many years ago, 5 years of Lee style… well, 34 years ago to be precise.

The example that springs to mind was when learning how to do Brush Knee & Side Step.
Brush Knee has certain characteristics in the various styles… (The final position is that you are pushing one hand directly ahead, the other hand is palm down by the side of the body, and the front foot is the opposite to the hand that is pushing; e.g. right hand pushing, therefore left foot forwards.
However, the way that the left hand (in this case the lower hand) operates in Wu style has a subtle difference compared to Yang that I couldn’t ‘get’ at first.

Both my teacher and I obviously found this very frustrating, and this was exaggerated because her spoken English is better than my Chinese (which is virtually non-existent), but not nearly as good as her Chinese….

This last sentence is my first point; you have to spend a while deciphering what the teacher means, especially as a Chinese person, if translating in his/her head directly into English, will produce a sentence that will have the concepts of the sentence in a different order to the way that an English person would express the same sentence.
But this is just structural.  My main point is that when we learn, we base our new understanding on the construct of the old; we can only see the view from where we are at the moment, not from the other side of the valley.  To get to the other side of the valley, we bring ourselves, i.e. our habits, our patterns, our perspective, and our understanding, so it’s impossible to get an entirely new view or perspective of the world.

The only time this happens is when there is a ‘leap of understanding’, a eureka moment.  It reminds me of the story of Magellan’s discovery of the Straits that I once heard in a lecture.
I have no idea how accurately I’ve remembered this story, but the gist is that when Magellan’s ships came in sight of the shores, the inhabitants of those shores were unable to see the ships; the ships were so far from any experience that the inhabitants had previously had, that their minds were unable to compute their possibility, and therefore they were ‘physically’ unable to see them.

Whether or not this story is true doesn’t really matter, it’s the concept that’s interesting, because in a very minor way, this is what is going on when you try to learn something new. When you are learning, and the lesson makes a jump (perhaps you missed a class), it’s much harder to ‘see’ … almost as though an evolutionary thread has been broken.

Learning …

Everyone learns in a different way; that’s the great thing about teaching… the challenge is to see why an individual cannot understand what you’re trying to say, and then to find something that will make it intelligible.
Some teachers expect you to understand what they’re saying, but fail to take into account that our understanding of certain words might differ quite widely.
E.g. “Make an internal rotation of your arms” will mean different things to different people.
Or, “Feel a connection between your left hip and left elbow”…
Or “Slip your rear heel”…
Or “Allow your right hip to lead the movement”…
… and so on.

I guess we’ve all had teachers who have got cross with us, apparently because we couldn’t understand something – in reality because they couldn’t explain it, or couldn’t find a language that connects the pipeline between you and him/her, (or were so much in their own head that they were unable to understand ‘how you could be so stupid’).

I’ve had several of the latter, and they are the ones that can inflict the most damage – they see the lack of understanding not as their problem (an inability to communicate), but your problem.

An incident that illustrates this most for me, and which I remember much more clearly than I would like to, took place when I was 9 or 10, and involved the headmaster of my school, who also happened to be the Latin teacher.

One particular lesson is embossed on my memory.
He had asked the class to parse the word ‘loca’, in other words to state its tense and meaning(s); I remember quite clearly not understanding what he meant by ‘parse’.
He grew more and more angry and eventually threatened that the next boy who was unable to parse the word would be taken into the gym (which was next door) and beaten.
Within 30 seconds or so, the unfortunate victim (a boy called Griffiths) was selected, it wasn’t me, and he was taken into the gym and caned; we listened to the entire encounter.
The headmaster must have felt better after that, because he dropped the whole matter, and the lesson continued along another track.
However, our joint terror as a class has always remained with me – an immobilising, mind-numbing fear that completely stops you from functioning both in mind and body.

So when someone doesn’t understand what you’re saying, perhaps they’re not listening, but more than likely you’ve not defined your terms correctly, are not being clear, and, more importantly, you’re not connecting with the listener.