This is a guest post from my friend and fellow instructor, Paul Cavel. I asked Paul to talk a little bit about his experience teaching all over Europe and what he’s learned after nearly 20 years doing it. There are some great insights here about the internal energy arts that you can apply to your own practice, whether you teach or not. Take note when he talks about practice mindset!
I’ve been traveling around Europe teaching internal arts in England, France, Germany and Greece since 1995, as well as training with my teacher almost every year in the United States since 1994. Through these experiences, I’ve had the opportunity to meet people of many different backgrounds and observe how cultural influences can give them unique perspectives on most any subject, including their neigong training.
However, more than any cultural differences, I see that the real challenges come from the Western mindset being so radically different to the Eastern approach. I know for me, as a Westerner learning ancient Eastern arts, the initial hurdle was to figure out the methodology underlying the great content I was training, so I could see the bigger picture–the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. There are 16 neigong, each with many, many layers of complexity, and dozens of forms to learn in any one system, so understanding how each can be integrated into the whole within the linear Western model for learning can be a bit tricky.
The students who achieve real and sustainable results from their practice are those who approach their training with patience, dedication and consistency. Perhaps most importantly, they have the willingness to work towards balance in all aspects of their being, rooting out weaknesses rather than only playing to their strengths–tenants consistent with an Eastern learning strategy.
East Meets West
Some people approach their practice as though they have “been there, done that,” but from an Eastern perspective, that would be completely missing the point. Instead, it’s about the depth and range of your skill set and how you can apply it in every conceivable way–not just in your practice, but in life. The students who catch onto this style will, over time, automatically weave in mechanics that create flowing forms and circulate blood and chi more profoundly. These are the factors that influence health and well-being, and give the most experienced practitioners the ability to achieve seemingly superhuman results.
You can find a tai chi class in almost every major city across the Western world, but few schools teach the deep internal content that underlies and powers up these forms as originally propagated in the East. Many schools have resorted to a linear teaching style to suit the average Westerner, but the Eastern approach has always been a circular progression: that is you learn a technique and practise it for awhile, developing your skill to the extent you can over several weeks to months. When you reach a plateau and your practice seems to stop evolving, you move on to other techniques, integrating everything you’ve learned within your forms (qigong sets, tai chi styles or bagua palm changes). Later, you return to the original technique, once again singling out that thread and further refining it. Although, upon revisiting the technique, your increased awareness–in body, mind and chi–contributes to an upgrade in your overall understanding and execution of the technique. This circular learning process creates a multiplying, self-sustaining positive feedback loop in your practice and the results you can achieve.
The Structure-Flow Continuum
Most students approach their practice from one of two ends of the spectrum: either from the perspective of flow or structure. That is there are those who gravitate towards the integrity of the movement form (i.e. successful execution of component pieces that combine to create a physical form) and others who focus on the flow, or the overall quality of motion within any given form.
From the point of view of teaching the internal arts, it is helpful to know where a student’s talent lies–either in flow or structure. Initially, using their natural ability, you can focus on that stream of information to help them gain some momentum. Once they gain some skill in that which comes easier for them, then a good teacher will use this momentum to redress the balance by focusing on exercises that will develop the opposite end of the continuum. This approach allows students to see the bigger picture with their talent being the driver of their success. As anyone who trains with an emphasis on internal power development knows, it is the balance between form and flow that is at the crux of all matters relating to how much benefit any one person will get from their practice.
Life as a Traveling Teacher
Teaching in different cultures for nearly two decades tuned me into the fact that, as a teacher, I cannot be attached to one style or method of presenting material as each culture, city, class, group or individual will have a slightly unique disposition. Although any given culture might be predisposed to start from a particular perspective, the magic of the internal arts is in the details and how they seamlessly integrate with all others. So there really is no starting line.
The circular progression of learning is about building up and breaking down component pieces in endless weaves and patterns, essentially looking at every possible angle to create a well-integrated, balanced form. This kind of assimilation is what allows students to overcome obstacles and achieve their goals, regardless of where they begin. From the perspective of teaching, I’ve not found anything more rewarding than helping students come to this realization and take on a long-term outlook towards their training.
Paul Cavel is a certified sports massage therapist, personal trainer and senior instructor of internal arts and Taoist meditation master Bruce Frantzis. Since 1987, Paul has studied the Energy Arts System in-depth, including qigong, tai chi, bagua zhang, Longevity Breathing therapy, qigong tui na energy healing and meditation. In 1995, with the encouragement of his teacher, he began offering an integrated health, fitness and stress-management solution to exercise and strengthen the body while releasing blockages — in mind-body-energy — that help people realize their true human potential. Find Paul blogging at www.CircleWalking.com.