What's most important in teaching a beginner?

Postby Kalamondin » Thu Jun 09, 2005 7:16 pm

Hi All,

What a fascinating discussion! As can probably be surmised from my posts, I love words and delving into their meanings and contexts. I often feel at a loss because I don’t have access to the facets of Chinese terminology except for the generosity of those on this board and at the tai chi school.

Tai chi is about balance and there are many different kinds of people who practice the art, from many different cultures. Of course, we are concerned about tradition, conservation, and transmission on the one hand; but Masters Yang Zhen Duo and Yang Jun also talk about “development” of the art, and have themselves changed their teaching style to adapt to circumstances and locations as they teach around the world. Any art that stays exactly the same and is concerned _only_ with replication eventually stagnates and dies. We have a rich tradition and heritage from which to draw in our studies, but ultimately, for mastery, each person must practice and gain _personal_ physical/energetic/spiritual understanding of what the classics mean. This leaves vast room for individual experience and interpretation.

Personally, I think that some of the most interesting growth and development occur in places where cultures mix. Everywhere the art of tai chi chuan goes, it is adopted and changed very slightly or quite drastically to suit the needs, preferences, and understanding of each place and group of people. There are tons of different types of people practicing tai chi in the world and I don’t think the art suffers for its increase in exposure. Yes, there will be those practitioners and teachers who don’t delve as far into the art, but I think their “lighter” understanding is still of benefit to them and the general awareness of tai chi chuan out on the airwaves. The people who are called to practice long and diligently will still do so, still seek out master teachers, and still try to refine their personal understanding.

When cultures meet—whether it’s Chinese tai chi masters meeting Westerners; or airy-fairy New Age hippies meeting hard-core, strict-regimen, do-or-die martial artists with military training; or tactile sense-oriented people meeting those who operate more from their heads—there’s always a great opportunity for exchange. Coming up against someone who does things completely differently from the way we do things forces us to reevaluate our core operating principles, our relative cultural understanding of “truth” or how things ought to be. Part of the balancing act of tai chi practice is to explore other people’s truths to see what applies and what doesn’t for us personally. But unless the mind is open, it’s too easy to reject other approaches without first opening to experience them as if they were true.

I’m not advocating adopting everything one comes across, willy-nilly. We can be guided by our teachers, by our study of the classics, by our understanding of fundamental principles and by our own body awareness of what works for us and what doesn’t. But I really believe that exploration—exploration of the self and exploration of the other is at the heart of this discipline.

Jerry, the "airy-fairy" comment hit home for me and I feel like responding just to give another side of things, even though I understand you were not aiming at me and I know you respect me. There’s no denying that I’m in the kookier range of practitioners out there (as defined by those who prefer structure, rules, order, proof): I’m a woman, I’m a poet--my practice is regularly guided by visions, dreams, and the sensory experience of energy flow. This is normal for me. These aspects of myself are things I cannot help but bring to my tai chi practice, and there’s nothing wrong with it—for me. I have a physical/visual understanding of energy, so when I describe things in more poetic, word-focused terms I’m trying to put into speech an energy experience or vision that’s fundamentally inexpressible with language. I’m not speculating off in the stratosphere; I’m trying to describe things that actually happen to me. I naturally have a more yin perspective than many writing here. My gift is for fluidity, yielding, listening. But I struggle with more yang elements like structured if-this, then-that responses; and with structure in general—not so much the shape of postures because I can flow into that and feel how things should align, but with maintaining an internal structure that won’t collapse. It’s what I need for balance. So it’s the opposite of many men who struggle to soften a sturdy structure so that it can be more yielding.

I think we need to be careful to distinguish between what’s yin and what’s yang in our practice attitudes and honor the full range of what’s out there with the understanding that all practitioners, regardless of focus (martial, health, spiritual, whatever) are seeking balance when they come to this art. This is an art that has the space and capacity for a full range of people to practice. There’s room for people with rigid 1-2-3 learning styles that want to know the precise angle of everything, who remember everything their teacher has ever said but have a hard time relaxing and yielding. There’s room for the poets and artists who leap and flow and channel energy but struggle to maintain a contained focus in the here-and-now. There are all sorts of “songs” and “poems” of this and that in the tai chi tradition and many calligraphers and painters in the Chinese martial tradition. The images in poetry are more than “mnemonic devices” (although one can certainly use them as such)—they’re designed to stretch the imagination and thus engage the spirit. There’s room for earthy, grounded, salt-of-the-earth type people who are practical and want to know how tai chi is useful but who can get stuck when they clutch at information and can’t let go. There’s room for airy-fairy flighty types who get lost in the spiritual ecstasy of Wave Hands Like Clouds but who cannot ground to save their lives. There’s room for fierce “life is a battleground” warriors who struggle to learn that the self is the greatest opponent and once mastered, there’s no need to fight everything.

I believe that mastery is having access to the full range of human capacity—all of the gifts outlined above. It’s a balance of the elements: the centered, stable, grounding of earth; the fierce scorching of flame; the fluidity and inexorable power of water; the resilience of wood; the honed steel of metal; the expansive vast infinite spirit of air.

The greatest barrier to our own mastery is a too-limited focus on what we have instead of what we might gain if we opened to other approaches, other personalities’ ways of operating in the world. (Audi, I’m not saying to go off and combine styles and methodologies, so let’s not open that can of worms again! Image ) There are advantages and disadvantages to the different personalities, approaches and world-views. Part of balancing the elements is giving up the self to study the other. And to know the other, one must become as the other…at least for a little while.

Best wishes,

[This message has been edited by Kalamondin (edited 06-21-2005).]
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Postby JerryKarin » Thu Jun 09, 2005 8:33 pm

Good post, Kal.
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Postby Yuri Snisarenko » Fri Jun 10, 2005 8:09 am

Hi All,

To me word "culture" has a few different meanings. First is what I believe may be called "personal intelligence and civilized attitude", which expresses in social interactions of a person, including conflict situations. In this sense, the Culture is one to the whole world and being divided into different ethnic cultures, I believe, it protects and preserves itself in such kind of way.

Secondly, the national cultures are a kind of path that civilization went through and, of course, storage of humans' true treasures. Here I agree with Kal that the exchanging of those treasures may enrich people from different cultures internally.

Thirdly, each culture directly relates to its language. Therefore concerning taiji we have two kinds of words or phrase in its lexicon: (1) witch have direct relation to taiji , for instance, the names of the stances/steps (bu) and (2) indirect (phrase/term – culture – taiji) or (term – other art – taiji). As for yongquan, I believe, original name was given partly because of its role in body's connection with the ground and energetic field of the Earth, so it's not far from its taiji meaning.

[This message has been edited by Yuri Snisarenko (edited 06-10-2005).]
Yuri Snisarenko
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Postby Kalamondin » Fri Jun 10, 2005 5:19 pm

Thanks Jerry.
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Postby nanzer » Wed Jun 29, 2005 12:36 pm

without question, chi-gong and the 13 methods.
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Postby Bamenwubu » Wed Jun 29, 2005 2:23 pm

While the ongoing discussion regarding whether or not it is more important to understand the poetic meaning of descpritive terms for things as they are named in the original Chinese or whether it is more important to understand that these are merely descriptive terms for actual things and the poetic name may or may not have any deeper meaning is quite fascinating, I have absolutely no knowledge of these things and so will simply continue to read the excellent insights supplied by others and hope to gain some knowledge from it.
However, I would like to take a stab at answering the original question posed by the originator of the thread. This is no condemnation of the current discussion, at all, I find it fascinating and informative. I just had a thought about how to answer the original question and figured I might as well jump in and answer it, since the other topic is simply beyond me as a native English speaker with absolutely no head for any other language, or English for that matter.
With that in mind, I will try to give my personal, humble opinion of what may be important to teach a beginner to help them truly understand the essence and meaning of Yang family Tai Chi Chuan.
Obligatory caveat:
This will be only my opinion, no one need pay it the slightest bit of attention who does not wish to as I am far, far from perfect when it comes to my understanding of TCC. I am simply a beginner myself who is doing his best to keep up with it all, quite far from the attainment of perfection and so my opinion will be suspect on this matter, even by myself.
That said, I also feel that those things that I see as important for a beginner to learn may actually be equally as important for those who have been practicing for a day or two, or maybe even for a hundred years, to remember and keep firmly in mind as they go along the path towards understanding Yang family Tai Chi Chuan.
Again, this is merely my uninformed, amature opinion on something about which I have limited knowledge and even less true understanding.
End of Obligatory Caveat:

The important points to teach to a beginner, in my opinion, are:

The Ten Essentials of Tai Chi Chuan:

Orally transmitted by Yang Chengfu, recorded by Chen Weiming, translated by Jerry Karin

1. Empty, lively, pushing up and energetic *

'Pushing up and energetic' means the posture of the head is upright and straight and the spirit is infused into its apex. You may not use strength. To do so makes the back of the neck stiff, whereupon the chi and blood cannot circulate freely. You must have an intention which is empty, lively (or free) and natural. Without an intention which is empty, lively, pushing up and energetic, you won't be able to raise your spirit.

2. Hold in the chest and pull up the back

The phrase 'hold in the chest' means the chest is slightly reserved inward, which causes the chi to sink to the cinnabar field (dan1 tian2). The chest must not be puffed out. If you do so then the chi is blocked in the chest region, the upper body becomes heavy and lower body light, and it will become easy for the heels to float upward. 'Pulling up the back' makes the chi stick to the back. If you are able to hold in the chest then you will naturally be able to pull up the back. If you can pull up the back, then you will be able to emit a strength from the spine which others cannot oppose.

3. Relax the waist

The waist is the commander of the whole body. Only after you are able to relax the waist will the two legs have strength and the lower body be stable. The alternation of empty and full all derive from the turning of the waist. Hence the saying: 'The wellspring of destiny lies in the tiny interstice of the waist.' ** Whenever there is a lack of strength in your form, you must look for it in in the waist and legs.

4. Separate empty and full

In the art of Tai Chi Chuan, separating full and empty is the number one rule. If the whole body sits on the right leg, then the right leg is deemed 'full' and the left leg 'empty'. If the whole body sits on the left leg, then the left leg is deemed 'full' and the right leg 'empty'. Only after you are able to distinguish full and empty will turning movements be light, nimble and almost without effort; if you can't distinguish them then your steps will be heavy and sluggish, you won't be able to stand stably, and it will be easy for an opponent to control you.

5. Sink the shoulders and droop the elbows

Sinking the shoulders means the shoulders relax open and hang downward. If you can't relax them downward, the shoulders pop up and then the chi follows and goes upward, causing the whole body to lack strength. Drooping the elbows means the elbows are relaxed downward. If the elbows are elevated then the shoulders are unable to sink. When you use this to push someone they won't go far. It's like the 'cut off' energy of external martial arts. ***

6. Use Intent Rather than Force:

The taiji classics say, "this is completely a matter of using intent rather than force'. When you practice taijiquan, let the entire body relax and extend. Don't employ even the tiniest amount of coarse strength which would cause musculo-skeletal or circulatory blockage with the result that you restrain or inhibit yourself. Only then will you be able to lightly and nimbly change and transform, circling naturally. Some wonder: if I don't use force, how can I generate force? The net of acupuncture meridians and channels throughout the body are like the waterways on top of the earth. If the waterways are not blocked, the water circulates; if the meridians are not impeded the chi circulates. If you move the body about with stiff force, you swamp the meridians, chi and blood are impeded, movements are not nimble; all someone has to do is begin to guide you and your whole body is moved. If you use intent rather than force, wherever the intent goes, so goes the chi. In this way - because the chi and blood are flowing, circulating every day throughout the entire body, never stagnating - after a lot of practice, you will get true internal strength. That's what the taiji classics mean by "Only by being extremely soft are you able to achieve extreme hardness." Somebody who is really adept at taiji has arms which seem like silk wrapped around iron, immensely heavy. Someone who practices external martial arts, when he is using his force, seems very strong. But when not using force, he is very light and floating. By this we can see that his force is actually external, or superficial strength. The force used by external martial artists is especially easy to lead or deflect, hence it is not of much value.

7. Synchronize Upper and Lower Body

In the taiji classics 'Synchronize Upper and Lower Body is expressed as: "With its root in the foot, emitting from the leg, governed by the waist, manifesting in the hands and fingers - from feet to legs to waist - complete everything in one impulse." * When hands move, the waist moves and legs move, and the gaze moves along with them. Only then can we say upper and lower body are synchronized. If one part doesn't move then it is not coordinated with the rest.

8. Match Up Inner and Outer

What we are practicing in taiji depends on the spirit, hence the saying: "The spirit is the general, the body his troops".
If you can raise your spirit, your movements will naturally be light and nimble, the form nothing more than empty and full, open and closed. When we say 'open', we don't just mean open the arms or legs; the mental intent must open along with the limbs. When we say 'close', we don't just mean close the arms or legs; the mental intent must close along with the limbs. If you can combine inner and outer into a single impulse *, then they become a seamless whole.

9. (Practice) Continuously and Without Interruption

Strength in external martial arts is a kind of aquired, brute force, so it has a beginning and an end, times when it continues and times when it is cut off, such that when the old force is used up and new force hasn't yet arisen, there is a moment when it is extremely easy for the person to be constrained by an opponent. In taiji, we use intent rather than force, and from beginning to end, smoothly and ceaselessly, complete a cycle and return to the beginning, circulating endlessly. That is what the taiji classics mean by "Like the Yangtse or Yellow River, endlessly flowing." And again: "Moving strength is like unreeling silk threads". These both refer to unifying into a single impulse. *

10. Seek Quiescence within Movement

External martial artists prize leaping and stopping as skill, and they do this till breath (chi) and strength are exhausted, so that after practicing they are all out of breath. In taiji we use quiescence to overcome movement, and even in movement, still have quiescence. So when you practice the form, the slower the better! When you do it slowly your breath becomes deep and long, the chi sinks to the cinnabar field (dan1 tian2) and naturally there is no deleterious constriction or enlargement of the blood vessels. If the student tries carefully he may be able to comprehend the meaning behind these words.


* This four-character phrase is probably the most difficult one in all of tai chi literature to translate. I have chosen to regard each of the four words as filling the function of a predicate or verb-phrase. Another fairly obvious approach would be to take the first two as adverbial and the last two as subject-predicate: "Empty and lively, the apex is energetic." Many other interpretations are possible.

** In Chinese thought the waist tends to be regarded as the space between two vertebrae, rather than a circle girdling the middle of the body.

*** External martial arts such as Shaolin are thought to use energy from parts or sections of the body, as opposed to the 'whole-body' energy of tai chi.

* Literally "one chi". This could also be rendered as "one breath".

If I am incorrect in my opinion, I would welcome being corrected by those with more knowledge in such matters.
Thank you for taking the time to consider my answer and in advance for any corrections that might be made.

[This message has been edited by Bamenwubu (edited 06-29-2005).]
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