Intention and Learning Styles
I view Intention as the master key to Tai Chi. It is what gives purpose to movement. It makes Tai Chi Chuan different than any other psycho/physical exercise. We practice Tai Chi so we can become real, simple, balanced, and whole. There are other movement arts that accomplish the same goals, yet I have loved the philosophy and beauty of the movements ever since I first saw Master Choy demonstrating his interpretation of the Old Southern Yang Style, over a half century ago. My practice allowed me to move from illness to wellness, depression to satisfaction, despair to hope, fear to love. I’m not just saying this. It was my experience.
I remind you that the learning process usually follows a set pattern. First imitate your instructors moves, then assimilate by study and practice, and finally innovate by letting your unique, true nature direct the moves from within. In order to do that, you need intention. You have to know what you want the body to be doing, and practice until it becomes reflexive movement.
A baseball batter practices over and over until he gains the skill to allow his body to hit the ball without thinking about it. I remember as a youngster learning to hit the ball. Many swings until I started to gage the proper distance, the speed of the approaching ball, the angle of how the bat must be in relation to the incoming object, and a lot more. With enough practice, hitting the ball became part of my nature, and no longer a part of thinking about how to do it.
Hitting a ball is not accomplished by studying the how to of hitting. You must get out and do it. Like riding a bike. No amount of study will substitute for getting on the bike and teaching your body how to balance, petal, brake, turn, etc. After you have done it for a while, you can then study how the experts are doing it, getting a lesson from someone in the know, and applying this to your own experience.
Each person is different. What I go through on my path, most probably will be different than what you go through. Students read about another person’s experience, and then try to make this happen in their own body/mind. It might happen, and it might not. I feel the best way to learn is to learn the proper movements from a teacher, then memorize by practice, then add intention by studying applications. Next apply applications with partners so as to build up the inner feeling of where the energy needs to be at any moment. Finally, just think about the application and let your body training take over so you just do the move without thinking how or why.
Just like hitting the ball. Practice until the body knows what to do, then just do it. Some people will have a special gift to hit the ball harder than others. You probably will never be able to hit like Barry Bonds, but you can hit like yourself with full awareness. Don’t compare yourself with others or you’ll never be satisfied.
Ways of learning Tai Chi
There have been quite a few questions and comments on ways to learn Tai Chi. What is the best way? As always, I give the same answer it depends on your style of learning. I learned by following my teacher. Not much verbalizing. Basically no applications, or much mention of internal energy. Just learn the form, practice, and it will all work out. I call this the outside in way of learning, or physical learning. Look at how an infant learns. It just watches and tries to imitate. Thinking is reduced to a minimum.
The other major way is by reading and study, then put this into a form. This seems to work well for people who are research oriented, like to spend time on the internet, work puzzles. I would say this is a mental style of learner. They ask a lot of questions in class, and movement is more difficult for them to assimilate.
It is not easy for people who are physical to start out with a mental teacher, and vice versa. I learned by doing and that is how I instruct. Both methods end up in the same place, but be aware that it might not be your fault if your studies are not bringing the results you know are being achieved by others.
It is important for me as an instructor to spend a great deal of time in actual partner work so students can experience and understand what Tai Chi’s various energies are. What is the actual difference between pulling and pushing, expanding and contracting, squeezing, bumping, striking, all with various parts of the body. One can imagine, but actually doing these with a partner results in muscle memory that can later be applied to solo, imagined re-enactment.
At one point in my teaching, I spent a lot of time working on Duai La the counterbalance of energy. When I push an object and it suddenly revolves or moves, will I be able to keep my balance or will I lose my root. Same with pulling, and all the other actions of a Tai Chi player. This skill one will never learn from study. Yes, one can read the words of an instructor telling what needs to happen inside, in order to develop this skill, but just working with a partner will impart this skill much more quickly.
We are fortunate in our small town to have enough interest in the study of Tai Chi to support nine teachers. When my students first started to teach, they taught as I taught, as they learned from me. For me it is so rewarding to see how they evolve into their own teaching style as they learn to trust their own instincts and unique abilities. It is difficult for me to have one of my former students, now a teacher, contradict me or try to clarify to the group we are working with, about something I was sharing. Yet, I encourage it, and am inwardly glad they are feeling strong enough to face their teacher and voice their opinion. The longer they teach, the more this happens. One of my long term certified instructors who hasn’t worked with me for years, came to visit a class. He said You used to do it such and such a way, and I am the keeper of the original way. I would then have to refer him to a video I made at the time we were together to show him he was incorrect about his memory.
So I recommend all students and teachers make an occasional video to check on their progress and have a record of their evolution. Master Choy said he wouldn’t make a video, because then people would not need him anymore. I don’t worry about that. I am fortunate that I don’t have to teach for a living only for the pure joy of it. I love to be a part of someone’s conscious decision to take charge of their health and well being. Each instructor at The Studio has the same desire. What a wonderful way to live one’s life!