One evening as students were milling around prior to class, a young woman, who I had not seen before, came into the hall, approached me and introduced her self. She told me she had studied Tai Chi for a few years and was interested in joining my class. Although I had not met her teacher, the name was familiar and I knew she taught the 24 Step Form. The young woman said this teacher had recommended she study with some other teachers to broaden her experience now that she was an Assistant Teacher. She also wanted to know about how she could become accredited as a teacher with my organisation.
Thinking that the cart was coming a poor second place to the horse, I suggested she watch the class and see if the way we did things appealed to her - then she could make a decision on joining the class or otherwise. She seemed a bit miffed and said she could 'just join in'. I tried to clarify by informing her that we did a different style to the one she was used to. Even more-miffed looking, she replied "I am an Assistant Teacher, you know."
I shrugged my shoulders and replied, "As you wish."
She took a place near the front of the class as we lined up to start the Form. After the first few postures were completed, she realised that she could not follow the sequence because the postures in the Cheng Man-ching Form are in a different order - although they originate from the same source: Yang style.
After class she returned to tell me, slightly sheepishly, that her teacher had never mentioned that there were different styles of Tai Chi. She departed never to return.
Another student called me once to inquire about coming to class. He came at the 'problem' from a different point of view. He told me he was interested in coming to my new beginners' class but that there was another teacher who did more styles than I did - thus he was unsure with whom he should study.
Leaving him to make up his mind we ended our conversation - but I wondered how to reply to someone approaching me with this sort of question. The young woman practiced Tai Chi blissfully unaware that, by chance, she was studying one particular style of Tai Chi; whilst the young man who had called me did not want to miss out by studying only one particular style.
So the question is "What's in a style?"
My former Aikido teacher once told us about his early days when he studied Karate and one of the fellow students with whom he trained. This fellow was very keen and studied several styles of Karate. He apparently knew over a hundred Kata from many of the established styles. However, my teacher went on to tell us that while he could do some of these Kata pretty well, he could not do one excellently.
To mistake the quality of our practice with the number of Forms or Styles we know is to mistake breadth for depth. Ben Lo has a good way of putting this: Why dig ten wells a hundred feet deep when you could dig one well a thousand feet deep.
The style is not the issue much in the same way the song is not the singer. Some of us are lucky that we find a style, by chance, which is a good-enough fit for us to be able to commit to; others may have to look around for the teacher or an approach which suits them. Either way, we are seeking to understand something which can only be hinted at by our practice. It is even possible to reach the ultimate in spite of limitations of teachers or styles.
So 'What’s in a Style?'
In the words of Paul Daniels: 'Not a lot.'