This is the beginning of a series of articles designed to give you a wider perspective on your Tai Chi training. In Training Tips 1 I am looking at that which surrounds training with brief words about relationships in class, being clear about your goals, the need to train hard from the first lesson and the idea that deep involvement and deep detachment should go hand-in-hand so that you can always approach your training with fresh ideas and a fresh mind.
I do think that some of the things I am trying to put across are difficult to convey in words so I will allow the Tao Te Ching, a 2000 year old book about the Tao (or Way), to provide my disclaimer:
“The Tao that can be described in words is not the true Tao”.
Relationships in Class
Let me begin by sharing with you some of the martial art terminology used to describe the relationships that exist in any Kung Fu / Tai Chi Class:
Si-dei…………. Younger brother
Si-hing………… Elder brother
Si-je…………… Elder sister
Si-mui…………. Younger sister
Si-pak…………. Father’s elder brother
Si-pak-kung….. Grandfather’s elder brother
Si-sok…………. Father’s younger brother
Si-sok-kung….. Grandfather’s younger brother
Si-jo…………… Great Grandfather
It is easy to let the importance of this list pass you by, but in terms of training tips for beginners I would rate an acceptance of their meaning very highly. I think the major point is that these words are not the normal everyday words used to describe your father or brother, rather these relate to the special bonding and relationships that appear in a learning environment. People often say “start as you mean to go on” and what could be of more value in your early days then forming useful, meaningful relationships with your teacher and fellow students?
New students can find the relaxed nature of Tai Chi classes confusing – when you first enter it may even be hard to spot who the teacher is. By applying this family structure you can find your feet relatively quickly (just treat everyone as your Si-hing of Si-je). It is one of those Confucian ideas that really do exist whether you pay attention to it or not. If you are careful to apply the intention of treating yourself as a junior member in a martial family you won’t rub people up the wrong way and the people who matter should quickly warm to you. If people don’t afford you the respect you feel they should (i.e. do not uphold their end of the relationship responsibly – and this includes the Sifu) let it be their error. If after a period of time it becomes clear that people are not behaving the way they should you have two choices: if you are charismatic or powerful enough make the culture there change, if not then leave. You cannot train successfully in something as complicated and deep as Tai Chi Chuan without the correct relationships with the people who will give you knowledge. It may seem strange advice, but you can see an insightful (though theatrical and exaggerated) portrayal of this family environment in the kung fu drama/comedy films Once Upon in China 1, 2,3 and 4. These Jet Li movies follow the adventures of real life Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung and are some of his best work.
Aside from a lack of understanding of the importance and nature of the relationships with your fellow students and teacher, another key point is the correct understanding of what you get for your training fee. It is an error to apply the modern concept of paying your money to receive a service (complete with customer service charter and performance targets no doubt). If you are serious about learning a martial art the intention behind giving money should be much closer to paying regular maintenance to support your Sifu (father). In some respects the money is simply token – an arbitrary figure in return for which you will be trained in a priceless skill – what is more important is the respect you bring to the ‘family’ you train with.
Get these ideas right and the information will flow so much more easily than if you simply expect service for your training fee and do not treat the class as a family.
Be clear about your goals
The number of people who have not thought deeply about why they are studying Tai Chi Chuan is amazing. Initially that is fine, but after a while the lack of a deeply motivating goal can lead to dissatisfaction with your training. Your initial superficial reasons you gave yourself when starting are rarely the core deep reasons within you. To get the most from any study it is useful to have a constant awareness of your goals so that you stay on course and are not tempted to meander or lose momentum. So continually set yourself minor goals that act as stepping stones to your greater goals. In essence find the purpose of everything you do. As a result of this continual reappraisal you may find your major goals keep changing. In actual fact you are learning more about yourself by digging deeper each day – fantastic!
Of further note is that you should not be put off, even if your major goal seems fanciful and out of reach from your current position. However it will serve you well to find out what is entailed in someone achieving this goal so that you can plan the logistics and achieve the realistic minor goals that will get you there. This is no different from a child wanting to be a vet – there is a lot between that childhood desire to care for animals and the walk across the stage to receive your degree and licence to practice. Effective self-management of your training is a sure-fire method to turn fantasy into reality.
Train hard in the beginning – accept everything is wrong
When you begin your ability to perform the physical movements and your ability to apply internal concepts to martial, health and spiritual matters will be low. As a consequence you may be tempted not to train in between lessons for fear of ‘getting it wrong’. In fact nothing could be more wrong then this!
It is better for you to accept that even during lesson time everything you do will be wrong. Even when an instructor says you are doing something well they are only telling you this in the context of where you currently are on your journey through internal martial arts. The knowledge and skills that the Chinese have developed and passed on over the last few thousand years is deep: deeper than any one person’s lifespan. Even a master has things to work on and improve and the way he does something today may change beyond recognition in 5 years time. Frustratingly it is rare that he can teach you what he is currently working on because it depends on a whole series of enlightenments of mind and body that you too will have to train through to get where he is. All a master can do is encourage you to train hard so that your many wrongs eventually become something right. Then you can move on to the next level and not languish in a festering dead-end.
Page 47 of grandmaster Ip Tai Tak’s book Tai Chi Chuan Revelations: Principles and Concepts explains it perfectly when it says, “Internal power requires time and effort to attain, It cannot be achieved overnight. It compares to wrought iron before it is turned into steel, as it requires tempering hundreds of times to turn it into good quality steel”.
So don’t waste time worrying about right or wrong at the beginning, or your training will be slow to bear fruit and you will lose interest in the art. Instead train your little cotton socks off. Treat it as if you have been thrown in the deep end of the swimming pool. Don’t wait for someone to give you the next lesson – you’ll drown!
Of course not knowing how, what or why you are doing things is uncomfortable; all the more reason to thrash out an understanding as quickly as possible. In a sense this is the first obstacle you have to face on your journey – will you face it down or avoid practicing and challenging yourself? My advice is not to let a single minute pass without reflecting on the most recent problem thrown up by your training. From my own experience I can tell you that Tai Chi Chuan is a very healthy obsession – let it take over.
Obviously people begin Tai Chi in varying states of health and many of you may be reading this and thinking. “But I can’t possible train hard because of my back/ neck/ knees/ hip/ shoulders/ depression/ etc etc”.
My answer to this is that you know what is hard training for you. If you are depressed and feel like lying down when you are supposed to be doing Chi Kung practice, then 5 seconds may be very hard training indeed. If you have a pain in your back but you stretch it to the limit every time you do something you are training hard, even it looks like nothing to other people. But if at any time you stay within your comfort zones in mind, body or spirit you will not change or grow. You will not achieve your goals. I am not saying that you should train to the point of having a relapse of any condition, simply that, like a child, you should always be testing your boundaries.
Heaven and earth are not humane; they regard all beings as straw dogs.
This famous line from the Tao Te Ching is my final pointer for this issue. It refers to the Chinese ritual where dogs made from straw are led though town to soak up negative influences (sort of like a metaphysical vacuum cleaner I suppose). At the end of the ceremony, when their use is over, they are burnt. If this idea is a law of nature than it makes sense to apply it to your training. If you look deeply into the tips I have given this issue you may find that they become a little overwhelming. Temper that feeling with the knowledge that everything you do in pursuit of your eventual goal is a straw dog; every thought, idea, training tool, technique, form, Chi Kung posture, relationship, teacher, class and style. Everything is simply a means to an end. If you ever think you’ve fully understood something you’ve stagnated by holding unto a straw dog. Achieve the paradox of deep involvement and detachment at the same time and you will know how, why and when to change your various tools (straw dogs) in order to get the most from your training.