The following are personal observations and experiences in relation to learning Taichichuan framed within a traditionally based teaching methodology specifically.
I must say from the out- set I am “guilty” but remain guiltless of the very things I’m writing about, that is, wanting to learn too much too soon, I mean who doesn’t? Looking back it was probably due to thinking that Taichichuan is easy to learn, and thinking, I can pick this stuff up pretty quick, I mean it looks easy doesn’t it? I soon learnt nothing could have been further from the truth.
When I began learning Taichichuan I can remember practising the rudimentary moves I was shown and then after a while asking my teacher a series of questions about what I was doing. When I asked questions it resulted in ninety-percent of the time with my teachers saying, “Do this”.
My teacher would then show me the method of movement and I was left to practice. Through the continual practise I would discover through “the doing” the answer which would later be confirmed by the teacher. I remember too when doing push-hands being given a healthy stinging whack with a rattan cane to the back of my calf, if talking instead of “doing” push-hands.(how can our attention be focused inward if we are constantly chattering away?)
I quickly learnt that leap-frogging or speeding-up the learning process, could not be done. I had to except the fact that if I wanted to progress in my chosen art-form I would have to do the following; Develop my patience, be consistent in my effort, be more attentive, and dissolve a lot of my expectations and watch and listen acutely. No more just skimming the surface, but rather begin to plunge deeper into what I was being taught and practice diligently what I was being shown instead of seeking to rush ahead.
At times I had to put aside my frustrations for the sake of my own development. For example; if I had to stay in a beginner’s class for two years, or I didn’t get to learn this form or that form or my classmate had advanced ahead so be it. I had learnt to equate knowledge of Taichichuan with the amount of forms we learn is not an entirely accurate benchmark.
Unfortunately some may think the learning of more forms equates to moving through various stages of Taichichuan. In my experience unless the fundamental mechanics are grasped we could learn all the forms in the world and still have no real grasp of the fundamental mechanics. It is not that we wouldn’t learn a whole bunch of things. But that we learn at the expense of developing sound fundamentals that then opens up the doorway into further on-going refinement.
Learning stages in Taichichuan are essentially distinguished by the personal embodiment and physical manifestation of sound Taichichuan basics and their continual refinement. The fundamental principles and methods of moving through consistent practice are realized in the students’ body as you traverse through the various stages along the learning continuum.
Wanting to learn all we can as quick as we can is not a bad thing, I mean it’s not a jail-able offence as far as know? To express our eagerness for learning, in fact, can be healthy, it may become problematic only when we skip over or negate the importance of developing a sound foundation and ensuring our fundamentals are mechanically well defined in our bodies before moving along.
Ensuring our fundamentals are being experienced in our body opens up the doorway into further refining Taichichuan otherwise, there is the “danger” of becoming very frustrated and cause our learning to stagnate. A teacher can only ever teach half the art, the other half must come directly through the students own practice and tangible experience.
From the beginning stages of learning Taichichuan it is important we practice step by step so as to allow the body the appropriate time to internally loosen, open and soften systematically layer by layer in a very gradual manner that prepares both mind and body for further advanced Taichichuan practice/s. For this, we must be fully present in our body.
To leap-frog or to think we can speed up the learning process to be frank, does nobody any good in fact, the idea that we can speed up or make easy the learning process particularly, one as complex as Taichichuan is a tad misleading. The only quick or accelerated way to learn Taichichuan I would suggest is to spend the time it takes in solitary practice to embody the very fundamentals of the art.
We may think or imagine we can take short-cuts but, this only leads to short-circuiting, and frustrating our sincere attempts toward any future progress. One could liken trying to leap-frog the learning process to “placing the cart before the proverbial horse” and it ultimately serves no good purpose other than to place unrealistic expectations and undue pressure on both the student and teacher.
There is a clear learning process in Taichichuan that takes you through the basic stages of learning in an orderly manner, orderly manner meaning, the learning methodology is structured in a progressive manner that best ensures the student has a clear and precise instruction in systematically learning sound fundamentals that allows the body to stretch and open appropriately.
Of course, there are always variables and exceptions to the rule and one size does not fit all particularly in Taichichuan (our bodies are all worn differently) and teachers must be mindful to remain flexible and not become overly dogmatic and allow room for the students personal experimentation?
However, in every instance relative to Taichichuan initial core physical benchmarks need to be accomplished and portrayed by the student to the teacher’s satisfaction and the students’ physical capacity to do so prior to moving on to the next step. This is not ego on the teachers’ behalf nor, does it negate the contribution of the student in the reciprocal learning exchange, but arises from a deep concern for the students’ progress and well-being that best positions the students’ entry into deeper more refined aspects of Taichichuan practice.
A teacher if perceptive can by the calibre of a students’ questioning and physical presentation of Taichichuan fundamentals know if the student is ready to further progress. It does not come from the students own self-assessment but through the students’ physical capacity to embody and demonstrate a particular stage of the art to the satisfaction of their teacher and not simply because the student can verbalise an understanding of what we are meant to be doing. A teacher too must be able to demonstrate clearly areas of practice for the students?
To have a healthy intellectual understanding of Taichichuan is important and very useful in our everyday interactions but it must be balanced and tempered with one’s physical capacity (assuming a student has the physical capacity) to demonstrate the principles in one’s body also.
We must be very aware, measured and discerning in our use of imagination and visualisation in our practice of Taichichuan. In my observations when we apply visualisation or the use of imagination we must be mindful that we are not creating a fundamental disconnect from the body and seduced into believing we are further along our learning trail then we actually are. Imaginative practices that lead us and focus our attention exclusively outside of the body when learning or practicing Taichichuan are, in most instances, in direct opposition to “gathering the spirit within”.
Generally, without being able to physically express our art it remains essentially theoretical. There needs to be a balance between our thinking and our capacity to actually do or the danger becomes that any perceived progress remains simply a figment of the imagination? This is where our teacher comes in to assist us in remaining grounded and to ensure we do not get a-head of ourselves, this is very important when seriously studying Taichichuan.
A good teacher as I see it, will always direct the teaching to the body and provides the student with what is needed at their particular stage relative to the students’ physical capacity and not necessarily to what the student may want or, would like to be taught. Of course, teachers who remain open to life-long-learning can also learn much from a student’s sincere questioning and personal pursuit of the art.
The teachers’ obligation is to prepare through investing their students practice in sound fundamentals so they can better enter fully the doorway of Taichichuan and to ensure as best one can that the future transmission of the art remains vibrant and clear and is evident in the student.
What was it that was said to the speeding coach driver - "slow down your horses, I'm in a hurry"?
- John Hartley
John Hartley, Founder and Principal Instructor of Inner Health School of Taijiquan, Adelaide