We are about to start the Early Fall session at Brookline Tai Chi and I’ve been thinking a lot about how to teach the introductory class. The challenge, when you learn tai chi for the first time, is all about mindset. I want to see if I can teach them “how to learn tai chi” as much as actually teaching tai chi. This might sound like a beginner-only problem, but I have a challenge for more experienced readers at the end of this post and I’m wondering if you can keep up with my beginners on this one.
Inner Form vs. Outer Form
When you first start learning tai chi, the obvious reference point is what you’ve seen people doing in the parks. People often describe it as “slow-motion karate” or a graceful dance. Understand that these comparisons only really touch the surface of what tai chi can be. You are looking at the Outer Form when you describe the choreography. But the real good stuff in tai chi happens with the Inner Form. Here’s what I mean:
Your First Tai Chi Class
Every teacher makes an important decision during the first class: focus on the Outer Form or Inner Form? In some ways, this is the answer they are giving to the question, “What is Tai Chi?” You can either answer this by showing the Outer Form or trying to give your students a feel for the Inner Form.
In an Outer Form class, you will be shown as many movements as you can possibly handle in an hour. It will feel like a dance lesson and the instructor will be in the front of the room counting out steps.
In an Inner Form class, you will be shown one or two (at the most) movements. You will be asked to feel different facets of the movement, sometimes focusing on the upper body, then the lower body, then an aspect like breathing. You will also look at how performing each movement affects your nervous system. Can you get more relaxed as you do the movement? Are you straining to achieve a certain shape? You will eventually be shown how each part moves and what the mind should be doing. To coordinate your intention and your body well, you need to perform a single movement again and again.
Most beginners get frustrated by all the repetition.
To tell you the truth, I never know which students will fall in love with this approach and which will run screaming in the other direction. I’m fine with that, actually. Tai Chi is a very particular method and it takes the right attitude or even constitution to connect with it. I don’t mean this in a judgmental way. It’s much more like puzzle pieces. You have to fit together with the Tai Chi approach. I’ve never seen anyone be successfully forced into a relaxation practice!
How to Learn Tai Chi — All Over Again
So for the experienced practitioners, when was the last time you slowed down and did a practice session like the Inner Form class I just described above? Tonight, my beginners are going to spend an hour exploring the opening movement of the form. Can you still practice like that? Can you find that much depth in a single piece of your practice? Let me know!