Perfecting Taiji forms

I studied Aikido briefly when I was living in Salt Lake City. My teacher was a gruff Asian man whose English was just adequate and whose teaching style was not unlike what you see in martial arts movies—he would mock or berate students who got things wrong. I don’t know if he thought that was the best way to get people to learn, or if it was just how his teachers had taught him.  Maybe he just didn’t want to waste his time teaching anyone who could be deterred by a little mocking or berating.

At one point, talking about his philosophy of teaching, he made fun of some locally available Taiji classes that focused on “perfecting” your Taiji forms.  With his somewhat limited English he made it perfectly clear that he thought it was stupid not to learn your Taiji correctly in the first place.

It made sense to me at the time.  I mean, if you’re going to practice something hundreds or thousands of times, surely it makes sense to learn how to do it correctly first, right?  Who’d want to practice doing it badly over and over again?

My current teachers, though, have a completely different attitude.  Unlike any martial arts class I’ve been in, they basically never correct anyone.  This may be partially due to the makeup of the class—mostly old people who might have limited range of motion due to arthritis or some other medical problem.  Also, I think it’s because they’re focusing on the deeper fundamentals—things like shifting your weight and turning your body. Exactly when you turn your hand is simply not as important.

Even more fundamentally, though, it’s because you have to do the practice to learn to feel the difference.  I suppose if you had a private tutor telling you that you were turning your hand too early or were forgetting to straighten your foot, you might spend a little less time practicing the form incorrectly, which would mean that you’d start practicing the form correctly a little sooner.  But I think you’d lose the chance to learn how to feel why one way is wrong and the other way is better.

I have no particular natural ability at things like this—things like martial arts or dance or tennis.  I’ve seen dancers who can pick up choreography in a fraction of a second, copying the lead dancer’s moves so quickly that you can scarcely tell that they’re unrehearsed.  I’m the opposite of that.  It takes me tens or hundreds of tries to get even reasonably close.  However, I’ve been surprised to find that I get a little closer each time, even without an instructor telling me what I’m doing wrong.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the way you learn how to do something is by practicing.  I knew that already.  But it’s been very interesting to see how effective this sort of minimalist instruction is.  The teachers demonstrate the forms, and they answer questions.  There’s no pushing people to do the forms more correctly, and there’s certainly no mocking or berating.  And yet, I’m learning at least as fast as I’ve ever learned anything equivalent in the past.

So, I think my old Aikido teacher was wrong.  It makes perfect sense to start learning Taiji at the most basic level (weight shifting, turning your body), and then to move on to foot work and arm movement, and only then to worry about things like how you move your hands.  It makes perfect sense to have an instructor show you what to do, but then let you learn how to do it through practice.  And, since you can do 90% of the practice entirely on your own, it makes perfect sense to have an advanced course in “perfecting” your Taiji forms, to get whichever small bits don’t come naturally out of your practice.

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One thought on “Perfecting Taiji forms”

  1. Philip, I enjoyed your article and agree with you about working the moves at the most basic level. As a Taiji (Tai Chi) instructor, I normally spent about 10 minutes or so in a class going over just one move. My philosophy has always been: you come to class to learn, correct or reinforce what you practice at home. Also when they’re practicing at home and feel they doing something incorrectly, just keep doing that same move incorrectly repeatedly. So when they come to class next and we actually go through (or ask about) that move again, they will instantly recognize what they’re done incorrectly and will easily make the adjustment to do move correctly. I always say that we learn by a series of mistakes. Great article.

    Colman Fink
    http://twitter.com/colmanfink

    By the way, I tweeted your blog: http://twitter.com/colmanfink/status/5800988835

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