Those of us drawn to the study of Tai Chi vary in terms of what we want from the process, what we expect, and how deeply we want to delve into its depths. For many, it is primarily a health exercise to impede the onset of age-related maladies. For others, it is a counter to the stress which afflicts so many in our advanced society and an oasis of peace and relaxation in the turmoil of hectic schedules and unappeasable demands. To yet others, the allure of the martial is a magnet too strong to resist, while others find in it meditation and a hint of a lifestyle blessed with wisdom, fulfilment and joyfulness. Wherever we find ourselves in our search for these things, Tai Chi always asks us to start with the Form.
The Form is the sequence of movements which we commit to memory and perform as the mainstay of our practice. Later - Push Hands, Sword Form, Fencing, Sabre, Staff etc, can be added but The Form is the bedrock of the Chuan (i.e. method), delivering its gifts of health, well-being and insight as long as we remain absorbed in its charms.
Most people who come to class have little or no experience of what will happen in a Form class and gradually pick things up as they go along. Since teachers, themselves, have differing requirements and expectations of the art, their emphases will vary accordingly. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that the new student comes and absorbs the atmosphere and teachings of the class without too much preconception of how things should be. It is considered better to come to a new discipline with your 'cup empty,' as the Zen master would say, so that there will space for new ideas to enter.
On the other hand, with so much to take in during those first weeks, some background may be helpful, if for no other reason than to distinguish issues of 'style' from those of 'content.' With that in mind, there follows some notes on what to expect in a new beginners class at the Autumn River School.
Is it a Beginner's Class?
The name Beginners Class is something of a misnomer. The new student attending the Beginners Class will see quite a lot of students who are clearly not beginning their studies.
As might be expected, there will be senior students who act as assistants to the teacher. They are there to ease proceedings, attending to administrative details, leaving the teacher to concentrate on instructing. They may answer the door if there is one, or intercept people who mistakenly wander in looking for something else. They may also lead the class through the exercises so the teacher can watch, or deputise when the teacher is elsewhere. Their role is to facilitate the class and encourage and advise the less experienced. More importantly, however, they are there to deepen their own understanding.
Other experienced students will also attend, regularly or intermittently. Despite not having a role as class assistants, they, nevertheless, are a resource for new students. The very fact of their attendance contributes to the class atmosphere even as they continue with their studies.
The same Form is practiced by the most experienced and skilled student as well as the newest beginner. Some Schools require students to learn more and more forms as an indication of progress; we on the other hand, view progress as greater awareness of the subtlety inherent in the Form. It is for this reason that everyone can benefit from attending a 'Beginners' class. Through practice we open ourselves to the possibility of gaining deeper insights in the Form. The gift of wudao, i.e. sudden insight, is not something we control ourselves. We may need a point explained to us several times in several different ways before the penny drops. The process is aided by hearing the same principles elaborated in different ways, each one shining a light on the subject from different angles. The ability to do this is the mark of a good teacher.
Learn the movements, not the names.
It is probably as well not to try and learn the names of the postures and other jargon by rote. Rather, the more natural method of learning by proximity or osmosis would be better employed, not just because the art is not a memory exercise, but because it is more in keeping with the intuitive feel that Tai Chi study encourages. The knowledge rubs off on us as we practice in the company of good teachers and sincere fellow students. Indeed, the secret of Tai Chi - i.e. the chi and heart-mind mutually guard each other in the tantien - needs to be understood intuitively: the intuitive provides a natural balance to guide and restrain the logical rational mind.
What's 'in' this season? Same as last season.
Attendance at class requires very little equipment, at least until a sword is needed for Sword Form and Fencing. Up to that point, loose, comfortable clothing, preferably cotton is all that is required though some schools sell logoed sweatshirts and T-shirts. This merchandising is not so much to provide the correct attire but more to assist the teacher to keep in the black.
The Spanish and French students I have met, prefer to change from work-a-day wear into Chinese style, mandarin collar silk suits, while others dress down into non-descript gym-wear, the more 'lived in,' the better. For the most part the Americans and we ourselves, the British, tend to wear what we wear on the street.
Just about all of us, however, favour flat soled shoes to make the contact with the floor - so important in Tai Chi - as full as possible. Practicing in bare feet is not recommended, not just because of cleanliness issues, but because the cold from the floor is thought to be capable of rising up the meridians of the leg leading to a chill in the kidneys. Although the cheap, cotton soled 'gentleman's shoes,' found in martial arts shops and equipment websites, as well as Chinese supermarkets are the commonest option, they are by no means the only one. I myself wore ordinary trainers, for the first six years of my practice. Usually the cheaper the shoe, the better suited it is to Tai Chi, a fact I find refreshing these days.
The most meaningful advice concerning Tai Chi clothing is that layers are preferable since the heating systems in the halls we use, like the weather forecast, is not to be depended on. Several lighter layers give us more flexibility to respond to circumstances than one heavy one: as one of my teachers used to say, 'As Tai Chi students we have to be flexible to changes in circumstances.'
Many Schools encourage students to bring water, herbal teas or equivalent to class, not necessarily because the exercise can be taxing but because it is believed that most of us are dehydrated. As dehydration is thought to aggravate other health conditions, it makes sense to top up our water intake as part of a healthy lifestyle. Fortunately, taking a refreshing mouthful of water from time to time during class seems perfectly normal and pleasant. It is an indirect way in which Tai Chi, or other exercise, can benefit our health.
Bowing and etiquette
Students coming from a martial arts background may be surprised to find no obvious rules of etiquette at class. We do not bow to each other or line up in order of seniority or, for the most part, wear visible signals of rank. While some teachers like to be called by titles such as 'Shi Fu,' or 'Lao Shi,' most western teachers are more informal. Some Chinese teachers also dispense with the practice. The renowned Ben Lo stopped his American students from calling him 'Lao Shi,' as without the correct tones it translated as 'Old Corpse,' instead of 'Teacher.' I heard also that 'Shi Fu,' can sound like 'Washer Woman,' in the mouth of the inexperienced linguist.
Appearances can be deceptive, of course, and most Tai Chi Schools do inherit some remnants of their origins as martial arts, though with varying degrees of strictness. It is often difficult for the beginner to know where the boundaries are since the unwritten rule is, just that, unwritten, making transgression eminently possible. I was once admonished by my teacher for referring to 'Cheng,' not the more respectful, 'Professor Cheng or Cheng Man-ching.' As a rule of thumb, treat other students as you like to be treated and be sincere and polite to the teacher. The rest you will pick up usually by watching or, occasionally being told. The absence of an over-bearing structure of school discipline encourages a friendly, pleasant and relaxed atmosphere much like the feeling generated by the Form itself.
Though subtle, Tai Chi's origins as a martial art does flavour its practice and teaching in many beneficial ways. Most importantly is the idea that progress has to be made by ourselves. It cannot be bought, stolen or gifted. We are ultimately responsible for ourselves. While this carries responsibility it also means that there is always hope. So long as we have a body, mind and energy we can make progress. Our future is in our own hands.