How do I pick a Tai Chi teacher?

“Hi,

I will understand if you don’t have time for this or are unable to give a meaningful answer. I bumped into your website about a year ago, and since your writing seems to make sense to me, I thought I’ll ask.

I’d been exposed to Tai Chi some years back, and have continued trying to learn a bit more about it on and off since then, but given I’m an inlander in Australia I don’t have any practitioners nearby (nearest is ~over 300 mi away) it’s proving to be a slow process of breaking down videos and trying to assess myself against these.

Which is sort of the ignorant leading the ignorant. I’m making progress, but it’s slow.

I’ve spent a bit of time this weekend watching one of the classes that happens “close” to me, and looking at patterns that are the same but different, so that was my first in person exposure to differences between schools.

Given the distances involved in this, and my general reluctance to travel that much, I’m wondering about how well the online courses work?
But that also leads onto a more basic question, of how do you pick a teacher in the first place?
(I have worked out that at least one of the groups near to me attach to the “lineage” responsible for “Tim” being in a cult so I’m counting that one out.)

Is it just a case of pick one and go until it stops making sense?

Thank you for your time, and the blog posts.

Regards,
Henry.”

Hi Henry,

Firstly, greetings to a reader from down under! What an amazing thing it is that I can write these blog posts here in the UK and on the other side of the world somebody is reading them. That really does make me think my time isn’t entirely being wasted.

Now, to the question of “how do I choose a Tai Chi teacher?” That is indeed a weighty one. A teacher/student relationship can be a big influence on your life, mainly because you will spend a lot of time practicing with them and people tend to rub off on you, so you should be careful of who you spend your time with. I also don’t want to advise you wrongly, and be responsible for you wasting years on the wrong track, or equally missing out on some great possibilities because the teacher didn’t quite live up to some standard I’ve set. People are human, fallible and weak, and they all make mistakes. Even mighty Tai Chi masters.

Members of a group that we might initially write off as a cult, could still be worth checking out. Just keep your wits about you. At the end of the day there are very few individuals who are good enough at Tai Chi to actually teach it, and your chances of finding one of those, especially one who isn’t charging an arm and a leg, is minimal, so we have to work with what is.

I think what we’d all like is to stumble across our very own Mr Miyagi, in a situation where we somehow befriend the keeper of an ancient family martial style who is happy to divulge his secrets to us if we do a bit of fence painting for him. If you manage to stumble across your very own Mr Miyagi then consider yourself to be incredibly lucky, because it’s not very likely to happen. However, we have the Internet these days, and while Mr Miyagis may be in short supply, there are an increasing number of Daniel-sans out there who may, or may not, be able to band together and form a practice group around a similar set of goals or perhaps an online teacher. You see, as well as a teacher to tell you what to train, you are mainly going to need a group of training partners of the same level to practice this stuff with when the teacher isn’t around. The majority of that work will look ugly, be full of mistakes and be unpaid, but it’s essential. That’s what nobody tells you.

Anyway, my top tips when meeting a new teacher are to trust your gut, ask questions and try and get hands on. Ask politely to try and feel what they’re doing. If they won’t let you or start making excuses, there’s your red flag. How do the other students act? Do they behave in an overly obedient way that makes you question what’s being presented? And what about their history? They should be able to answer basic questions about who they learned from and where they trained.

Of course, on the other side of the coin, it’s quite possible that you have entirely unrealistic expectations about what a Tai Chi teacher should be. Just remember: There’s no point checking everybody in the room if you don’t check yourself. Are you sure you’re not letting a good learning situation go by just because the teacher in question only has 3 of the 5 specialist Tai Chi skills you are looking for? A rule of thumb I used to use was “can this guy do something I can’t do and do it well enough that I want to learn it?” If they could then that was a good reason to learn from them. You can learn something from pretty much anybody.

And be clear with yourself what you actually want to learn. Some teachers are better at the fighty stuff than others, but if you don’t want the fighty stuff, then you can save a lot of time by not training it.

But what if the worse should happen and you get taught “wrong”? Well, that’s always a risk, but is it as bad as you think? It could be that you need to be taught wrong a few times, just so you can appreciate what’s right. Think of it as the price of an education.

The big thing I’ve learned over the years is that in the end it matters more how we treat each other, than what special knowledge somebody has access to. At one period in my life I trained with a Tai Chi teacher who was very good at what he did, but was also a complete asshole. I could tell he was an asshole, and the frequent bust ups he had with long term students were a constant reminder, but I wanted to get what he had, so I put up with him. I turned a blind eye to his various escapades into what would be called “bullshido” these days. But in the end I just couldn’t take it anymore and I left. It turned out to be the best thing I could have done. It was like a weight had been lifted, and I realised it was that weight that had been holding me back the whole time, I just couldn’t see it.

Anyway, I hope that helps.

Here are some typical Australians, about to be murdered by sharks. Photo by Belle Co on Pexels.com

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