9 minute read

It's been on my mind a lot in the past month that Brookline Tai Chi is approaching its 20th anniversary. With a rough calculation, that also means that we are approaching having taught 10,000 students in that time span. I can't decide which one of those milestones is going to look better on the big banner out front. How about "10,000 People Relaxed"?

In light of reaching these major institutional marks, I've also been wondering about the underlying mechanisms that have given the school such an amazing run so far. Surely, with this longevity, there have to be elements of the Brookline Tai Chi experience that transcend any one individual teacher, staff member or student. Then I came across the concept of Core Human Drives, from the Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman.

When you look at the overarching structure of Brookline Tai Chi, you can start to see how a system is in place to fulfill all five of these drives.

The Drive to Learn

The most obvious place to begin is the drive to learn. As a school, that is our most clearly stated goal. People come to us out of curiosity to learn, motivated to master new skills, and get satisfaction by progressing through the curriculum, course-by-course. We have multiple levels in each subject area and so, when you look at our course offerings on paper, the learning progression is very clearly laid out.

Occasionally, we get students whose drive to learn is more refined, and doesn't map on to the structure of our curriculum. These students can self-regulate the drive to learn more than the average student, and you see them adapting the curriculum to their needs, instead of relying on the external structure of the curriculum. I always have fascinating discussions with them, and many argue for dropping the curriculum model altogether. Having seen a thousands of people interface with our curriculum structure, though, I try to show these students that they are the exception, not the rule, when it comes to needing external guidance in fulfilling the drive to learn.

The Drive to Defend

As tai chi becomes more well known in the West and the body of research that supports its health benefits grow, we see more and more students who come at their doctor's recommendation. You could call this the drive to defend, because these people have identified a long-range threat to their health and are taking preventative countermeasures. Students who come in "because my doctor recommended it" are kind of like teachers who just teach the material. If this is their only motivation, it's going to be a hollow experience. Nobody lasts very long when their sole reason for learning tai chi is someone else's prescription.

So if we're going to talk about the drive to defend, you can't simply say "tai chi will prevent X" or "improves Y" any more than you can make someone enjoy a salad by saying "eat your vegetables". However, when someone makes the turn to embracing a personal practice, the drive to defend is fulfilled on a different level. For these students, the practice becomes an indispensable part of maintaining their health and wellness because they learn to manage their own energy. This is a very personal process though, and any prescription from a doctor or PT to practice is only incidental to internalizing personal practice.

As far as BTC fostering this drive, at best we can be a place where new students see other people modeling this behavior. You can't tell someone to adopt tai chi as a self-care energy management tool, but you can certainly show them what it looks like by example. In fact, this is one of the intangibles that comes across with the best teachers on day one. Whether or not students realize it, to some degree they are attracted to the teacher's personal practice as it comes out in their personality, bearing, and energetic demeanor.

The Drive to Acquire

Because we live in a culture that conditions us to buy stuff in an attempt to fulfill our deeper drives, I've always thought the drive to acquire had a funny place at Brookline Tai Chi. It's there, but it's pretty refined when you compare it to the urge to buy a shiny piece of plastic.

Instead, we have a sort of dual economy, with external and internal currency. It's not uncommon to hear "what class are you in?" or have students who get excited about being in the advanced classes by 2015. What's more interesting to me is the subtle statement of status when people practice openly at the school. Don't get me wrong, I don't think it's a bad thing at all. In fact, I think the message it sends is, "I'm confident and comfortable with what I know and I'm getting my practice in because this is important to me." I just think it's worth identifying this as part of fulfilling the drive to acquire on some level.

The drive to acquire in the tai chi world also motivates you to acquire "spring in your ligaments" or a 45-minute standing practice. We try to present the practice accordingly, like a giant developmental jigsaw puzzle, part mystery to figure out, part collection of pieces to complete.

The Drive to Feel

From the first class, we try to center each class around developing a facet of feeling awareness. As you look down the developmental path at the school, "feeling" becomes more and more refined. In the beginning, it can be as simple as noticing the speed at which your body wants to perform the opening movement of the tai chi form. "Slowness" is the first quality people associate with the practice and even appreciating that can have a felt impact on the first day of class.

More experienced practitioners describe the learning arc as an ongoing process of feeling into and exploring an "internal landscape". Bruce Frantzis often describes learning Taoist energy and meditation practices as "awakening internal senses". From this point of view, the more someone invests in their practice, the more they are engaged in a grand process of feeling.

From an institutional point of view, we have to facilitate this process so students can gradually go deeper, but you can never assume that on any given day, for any person, you know what they are feeling.

In a class recently, I was showing a group how to do an exercise, not from the point of view of stretching muscles, but by releasing their nerve. It's a much lighter, gentle approach, but the goal is to perform the same exercise that often feels like a tissue stretch. A few students in class connected with the new approach in a way that made the exercise more accessible than ever before. When we discussed this, though, a couple of people were adamant that the new approach did nothing for them. Instead of convincing them that they should, in fact, feel in new and amazing ways, I was comfortable with them not connecting with this approach. This upset them or at least surprised them, but in order to have people genuinely connect with internal sensations, you have to make room for big misses too. There would be something disingenuous about every single person having a cathartic energetic awakening every hour of every class. In fact, not only would encouraging this kind of experience be dishonest on our part, it's unhealthy for students to work with their own energy that way.

I meet more and more people who come in to BTC with "qigong experience", who have only ever really had these big group "experiences" that are in fact more disassociation and escapist fantasy than healthy energy development. One of the things I like about the way Bruce has always presented the Taoist tradition that he teaches is that, to some degree, it is mundane. The emphasis on slow and steady progress, tethered to concrete physical feeling awareness, is actually very stabilizing.

The Drive to Bond

I tend to think that community develops around the edges of practice. When you talk about people connecting to each other through shared experience, the structure at Brookline Tai Chi again plays an interesting role. The quality of the shared experience shifts over time, from external to internal, like all of the other drives we've looked at so far.

Initially, people bond of feeling confused, klutzy, and slightly uncomfortable learning new skills. Since we start all of our beginners together, they can relax about performing to the standards of more experienced students and feel comfortable when they see their classmates fumbling along beside them. As they progress into deeper internal territory, the exercises they do with their classmates are a little more intimate, but they've also become comfortable around each other, so it works most of the time.

When you talk about fulfilling the drive to bond in the classroom, though, you've already skipped over several steps in the process that get you into the classroom in the first place. From someone's very first interaction with the school, the drive to bond is sitting on their shoulder, asking them questions like "Can I see myself there?" or "Is this a place for people like me?" or even "Will there be people there I get along with and who will like me?". In subtle ways, we have to answer this question 100 times before someone is comfortable enough to do a partner exercise where the instructions are "let go". The drive to bond constantly asks "Can I trust this place?"

As a teacher, as the program director, as the person who often writes the marketing copy, I'm constantly trying to answer this question. When I walk into the school, eye contact, smiling, and addressing people by name goes a long way to always reinforcing this trust. Showing people that 20 years and 10,000 students later, we have a process that works is another strong indicator. What amazes me is that the weight of the 20 years/10,000 people experience comes through in the first 5 minutes of class. People can tell that there is something solid here, and it puts them at ease.

I guess my one candid admission for this post is that sometimes conveying all this trust, and facilitating this bond makes me uneasy, because sometimes it feels very one-sided. By developing a trusting bond with 200 students at a time, lots of people share personal things with me. I have teachers like this too, where I'm on the other side of the relationship. Without a relationship like this, I don't think deep learning can take place, but my hesitation is that often, people confuse it for more of a two-way street than it really is. Nothing makes me happier than overhearing two students in serious conversation, and knowing that I'm not the glue that holds their bond together. Community forms around the edges of practice, and the more I can extricate myself from the bonds of that practice over time, the healthier our community is.