– by Michael Gilman
This article is reprinted by permission of the author, Michael Gilman. You can subscribe to his newsletter at http://gilmanstudio.com/
Greetings. A few thoughts about teachers and students of Tai Chi Chuan. I am happy to hear any feedback to these musings. Also, a reminder that the First Saturday workshop on June 7 will focus on push hands. Hope all is going well for you and yours. – Michael Gilman
Teachers and Students of Tai Chi Chuan
Tai Chi Chuan evolved in China over a long period as a martial art based on the philosophies of Daoism, Confucianism, and Zen Buddhism. The knowledge of this art was necessarily kept very private, mostly passing from father to son, and a to a few trusted disciples. The most obvious reason was that Tai Chi Chuan fighters processed great skill and didn’t want others to learn their secrets. The teachers of old always held back a few special techniques so they would hold an edge if anyone tried to take over. Even the son wouldn’t be taught all until the father was ready to retire.
As Tai Chi evolved more into an exercise, health regulating system, the need for holding back secrets was not nearly as important, and in fact, these secrets eventually stopped being taught all together and died out. Tai Chi today is much diluted and certainly almost exclusively devoted to health and personal growth. The teaching of Tai Chi has also been softened and is much more open to everybody. With the popularity of the Internet, students worldwide can learn all that an instructor has to offer.
As a full time instructor for the past 41 years, I would like to share some of my ideas about the teaching of Tai Chi from the perspective of both students and teachers. I know my knowledge and teaching style has evolved over the years, as well it should. I firmly believe if your form is the same as you learned after 10 years or so of practice, you are stuck. Tai Chi is based on change, and should grow as the practitioner matures.
There is a popular maxim that goes “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I think this is true. If one is interested in studying Tai Chi nowadays, there are many ways to go about it. There are many qualified instructors who can be found through the Internet, or by asking around.
What is less well known is that instructors are always looking for good students. Early in my career, I wanted as many students as I could attract, mostly for financial reasons, as I was supporting myself solely by teaching. I also wanted to establish my name as an instructor.
As I became more established, and had more experience, I realized that the students were educating me by asking questions, and posing problems that I would need to solve in order to help them. I would challenge myself to teach them more clearly and simply, while conveying ever-deeper levels of study.
Each time a new student appears, I wonder if he or she would make a good teacher. I am ready to give my all to help someone if they show a desire to teach Tai Chi. I knew after my first series of classes that I wanted to teach, It was love at first sight. So students, if you are interested in teaching, speak to the instructor and let him or her know. It will help him to keep a closer eye on you, and most probably, offer more detailed suggestions to help you improve your performance and knowledge.
My primary instructor, Master Choy Kam Man, had these words written up on the wall: “Respect your teacher, obey the rules, live your life in truth and righteousness”. I had never really paid any respect to any of my schoolteachers, mostly because I, as a student, sat in a room and listened while the teacher lectured to us. We knew nothing about the teacher, nothing about his or her life, skills, or background. I obeyed most of the rules, at least the ones I couldn’t neglect. Truth and righteousness were not on the radar.
Master Choy led by example. He had great skill, a marvelous teaching style, and was so open, generous, and welcoming that we all wanted to be like him and win his approval. I think the master teacher leads by example mostly.
In a moving art, like Tai Chi, students and teachers change physically as the years pass. The stance, for instance, starts out medium low and wide – shoulder width with the knee just covering the toe. As he gets stronger and more flexible, the stance widens and deepens to work on developing more chi and strength. After many years, the player then naturally moves into a more natural stance – not as wide and deep. So if you encounter a teacher later in his life, and you are young, there could be problems with going through the necessary steps of stance development.
The stance issue also can work the other way. If the instructor is young and the student older, he will have to encourage the student to feel comfortable working at his own place of ability and comfort. It is important for the teacher to take the student through the process and not just have the student do as he is doing now.
In the small rural town I live in, I am the only Tai Chi instructor, other than people I have certified. We teach the same form in much the same way. In a large city, the student might have quite a choice of instructors, many studying with more than one at the same time. It is so important for the student, to practice “Zen mind, beginners mind” when he is in class. He must leave behind the other form, other teachings, and just be a clear slate if he wants to learn what the instructor is teaching, as well as have the respect of the instructor.
Students who come to my class and ask questions that are really statements meant to show what they know, turn me off. I feel it is disrespectful and usually a waste of time for other students. It usually puts me in a position where I have to explain to the other students what this person is saying, or sometimes, when I disagree, either have to hurt the students feelings or I’ll just bite my tongue. The teacher does not have to be told what you know. He can see it in your performance. If you need help, ask, but don’t waste everybody’s time with statements.
A related issue is the student who wants to teach who teaches his classmates when it is not appropriate. I do not want students teaching others in class unless I ask them to. It makes a problem for the instructor in many ways. These students often keep talking when I am starting to talk, so I then have to wait for them to finish, forcing the entire class to have to wait. Many times they teach incomplete or incorrect information, which forces me to take the time to clarify what has been said. Or it sometimes puts me in a situation where I have to disagree, making the student lose face, which is against my nature. So I recommend to students to pay attention, ask questions when appropriate to gain needed information, don’t instruct others unless the instructor asks you to.
Tai Chi instructors are often put on pedestals. We want to believe they are special and we often brag about them to others. It is quite common to hear a person name all the famous masters he has studied with, as if that makes him exceptional also. Tai Chi masters have worked hard for many years to achieve a level of skill strong enough for others to call him a master. But because he is a master of Tai Chi, it doesn’t mean the rest of his life is all together. Many famous masters had physical, mental, emotional problems that were harmful to students, as well as to themselves. As a student, respect your teacher, learn as much as you can, don’t compare him to others, and don’t gossip about his private life. Your teacher might know more than you, less than someone else. Your instructor, no matter what his level, is always a student also. Cut him some slack.