Tag Archives: understanding

SO serious!

Most people who do tai chi or qigong come along to a class because they want some exercise, perhaps also to meet likeminded people, maybe to do something a bit different, maybe to find some calm in a hectic working life, or to centre themselves… and so on.  Probably something like .0001% want to become teachers.

The teachers’ balancing act.
For the tai chi and qigong teacher, you want to share your enthusiasm – your insights into what you do, and what gives you enjoyment, but you also know that the vast majority are there to do something a bit different, and probably don’t take it as seriously as you do.
In other words, there’s a fine line between being overly serious in a class and making the event an enjoyable experience.
I’ve known a few instructors who take the whole thing extremely seriously without any sense of making it enjoyable, seeming to forget that most people are not there for the same reasons that they are there.

Getting irritated.
I’ve also known teachers who get annoyed when their students don’t understand something.  They seem to forget that the student is actually paying them money to come to the class, which implies that the student wants to learn, rather than be told off for apparently being stupid.  The teacher’s annoyance also strikes me as strange because, if someone doesn’t understand something in a class, surely the tutor has either aimed too high with the info, or else explained himself inadequately.  Sure, some people don’t listen, but perhaps their focus is still on something else from which you’ve now moved on.

‘I don’t get it.’
My view is that, if someone doesn’t get the point I’m trying to make, I’ve either  explained it badly, I’ve explained it in too complex a manner, I’ve taken too long to explain it, the analogy I’ve used to help people wasn’t good enough, I’ve tried to explain too much at the same time, or perhaps I haven’t demonstrated it clearly.

A tai chi or qigong class therefore has to cater for all. You need a bit of fun, a bit of a challenge, but at the same time you need to present some of the subtleties so that people leave thinking, “I didn’t know it could feel like that”, having experienced a change in either their bodies or in the way that they move, or possibly in the way that they see the world.

Asking questions.
People don’t like to ask questions.  I completely get this.  If you’re in a group of people, you don’t like to ask anything in case everyone will think the question stupid, or too basic, or missing the point, or in case you are asking a question that’s already been explained and you were too thick to get it first time around!

But in my experience, however stupid you might suspect the question is, there’s always someone else in the group who wanted to ask the very same question, and who’s really pleased when you ask it.
Furthermore, when people start asking questions, everyone suddenly gets involved and more often than not, other questions start to arise.  Then the class takes on a positive momentum of its own.
Questions mean that you’re thinking about what you’re doing and trying to get to grips with it in your own way.

Do I have to practise?
We’re not in a temple in China anymore; this is 21st century high-pressure life, and not many people want more pressure in a lunchtime or evening class.  No one wants to be emotionally beaten up by the instructor for not practising; yes, you might want to improve, but at your own speed.
For some teachers a student’s lack of practise can be very annoying, but those teachers either forget, or simply don’t take into account, that people learn for a variety of reasons, and that their students are not learning to please them.

Details of Tai chi and Qigong classes with James Drewe here.

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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.

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.