3 Things You Are Going To Hate About Tai Chi (for new students)
1) One of the first things you need to know about Tai Chi is that it is hard. It is difficult - both physically and intellectually. Tai Chi is an exact science. Having your foot or elbow out of place by just 1cm can make a big difference to the amount of power you can generate AND to how much wear and tear is placed on your body.
Flat feet is the commonest postural problem that has to be ironed out, as this causes the ankles and knees to be misaligned and these problems take their toll on the back and so on up the body. Another common problem is the pelvis being tilted - usually forwards in contemporary culture, and in the past there has been a tendency for women to put a strain on their backs by tilting it the other way and sticking their bottoms out. Either way - the position has to be corrected.
We may well drive you mad with all the different postural considerations you need to remember at first. Tai Chi is not really done approximately to begin with - you have to get it more or less right from the start. We don't expect perfection - even we don't do it perfectly, probably no one does, but it needs to be right. That way you don't get into bad habits along the way, that you'd then have to work hard to eradicate at some later date.
This is why Tai Chi people spend an unreasonable amount of time moving very slowly and precisely, and even just standing still sometimes. When you are learning a whole new way of moving, you have to learn to walk before you can run, and before you learn to walk, you need to learn how to stand up.
In the MTA, we practice in a much more hands-on, combat orientated way than most Tai Chi classes, because this is by far the best way to learn hands-on combat skills, but we still go quite slow and steady to begin with. This doesn't mean the techniques will be entirely painless when your fellow students practice them on you, but in this too, we build things up over time - speed and intensity increasing as your movements become more reliable.
The main reason we are so exacting is that although Tai Chi has some great fighting techniques, they only really work well when they're done correctly and if they are not done correctly, they may well not work at all. Sometimes a technique doesn't even work on a particular person on a given day when it is done correctly - that's why you need to learn multiple techniques along with the skills required to allow you to adapt to changing circumstances. Whatever anyone says, no technique is truly infallible.
2) Another thing about the Tai Chi way of moving is that most people find it to be the exact opposite of how they already do things.
Here's an example:
If a person wants to pick up a small object, they will typically reach for it with their hand. If they can't reach it, they will stretch their arm. If they still can't reach it, they might stretch or bend their body. And if they still can't reach, it is only then that they might move their feet. The Tai Chi way, if you are not close enough, you move your feet first, then you move your body, without bending, and finally, you move your hand. In this way, your whole body is involved and in Tai Chi we seek to involve the entire body in everything we do - there is a Tai Chi saying that when one part moves, the whole body moves and when one part is still, the whole body is still. Furthermore, the body is engaged from the ground up, rather than from the top down. See how topsy turvy we are?
Here's another example:
Typically, if a person wants to throw a punch, they will power it by tensing their arm muscles and forcing it out from their shoulder. This will pull the body upwards and forwards, dragging along behind the punch. To punch in a Tai Chi way, we start from the ground and work up to the fist with relatively little muscular tension. We also try to sink or at least remain sunk while striking and this is even true when kicking.
3) One final thing you're going to hate about Tai Chi is that you can't just do it when you are in class and then forget about it again when you're at home or at work. The new ways of moving we'll teach you need to be observed as you go about your everyday business too, otherwise you'll spend a lot more time during a typical week training your body how to revert to its bad old habits than you'll spend teaching it new, more physically efficient ones. We won't lie to you - it's all or nothing - Tai Chi is a way of life - you can't do it half-heartedly or recreationally. If you try, you'll never get it right.
So there you have it on a plate - 3 things you're going to hate about Tai Chi. It's hard, it's counter-intuitive and you're never off duty. Well, maybe we can be a little flexible about that last one, but the more you put in, the better the results you'll get and the more fun you'll get out of it. Oh yeah, we forgot to mention that it's fun too.
I think one of the strangest and most worrying trends in the martial community is the strong tendency towards cultural elitism. We often find ourselves in a bizarre situation when a new, prospective Tai Chi student comes to view a class. They might initially like what they see, but once we break it to them that we "don't do qi", no amount of martial skill will impress. Almost without exception, they'll have had their hearts set on learning about "qi".
These people will be hugely disappointed when you tell them you are using body mechanics. No amount of explanation will do - as far as they are concerned, it is not a matter of different rationales being used to describe the same thing - if we are using our physical bodies, then we are not using "qi", or "energy", whatever that's supposed to mean. And if we are not using "energy", they will allege that we are simply "doing it wrong". When they discover that we target vulnerable parts of the body identified by anatomical realities such as eye-balls, windpipes, ITBs, femoral nerves etc. instead of performing magic tricks in an alternative reality of imaginary, "energetic pathways" and "force fields", their unhappy suspicions only deepen.
The climate of misinformation is so great, that a surprising number of people will pointedly walk out in disgust upon hearing that we are "100% Qi-Free". At times it is very apparent that they wish to make us feel like we have somehow duped, deceived or cheated them in some way, simply by claiming to have anything at all to do with "Tai Chi" which EVERYONE knows is ALL about "qi".
Sometimes, quite often in fact, Tai Chi seekers are visibly emotionally damaged and are really looking for a guru who can help them to fill a gaping spiritual void in their lives. While I'd be only too happy to help them, if I felt I could, a Tai Chi school would be the last place I'd send them for spiritual or emotional support. From my experience the average Tai Chi class is full of flaky new-age seekers with a hotch potch of weird ideas and beliefs, including the teachers.
So we use muscles and body mechanics instead of "qi", we target nerves and muscles instead of "energetic pathways" and we use physical skills instead of so-called "internal energies" (perhaps having been allegedly passed on to us by "authentic spiritual transmission"). In other words, we can do everything the so-called "internalists" can do (all the legitimate stuff, anyway), but we explain it all in a coherent, practical and replicable manner. We tell you precisely how to achieve optimal positioning, optimal strategy, optimal biomechanics, optimal power etc. rather than leaving you to discover it all (or not) for yourself, intuitively. The fact that we actively teach you these styles instead of leaving you to work it all out for yourself singles us out as a pretty unique school in this field. Trust me - I know.