So you want to be a Master of Tai Chi
First let me say that there is a popular misconception about being a “Tai Chi Master”. We tend to think that such a person has reached a near mystical state. When we say someone has mastered carpentry, or painting, or sailing a boat, we think of these people as regular people who have excelled in their skill area. It is the same for Tai Chi. I have known many people who have achieved the level of “Master” as recognized by their contemporaries, and are no different than you or me, but have excelled in their Tai Chi practice. Keep this in mind. You can master Tai Chi right now if you devote time and energy to this. Also, Tai Chi is a multi-headed dragon, meaning there are many sides to Tai Chi and one can master one aspect, and maybe not all. Tai Chi is composed of martial arts, qigong exercise, natural medicine, meditation, fitness training, philosophy in action, and more. Here is a path I think a person could follow to move from novice to master, focusing mostly on the form.
1. Usually one either sees someone practicing Tai Chi form, or reads the latest study proving Tai Chi benefits almost all body/mind systems. So this person decides to give it a try.
2.The next step is usually reading about Tai Chi on the internet. I would recommend reading the classics of Tai Chi, like The Essence and Applications of Taijiquan by Yang Chengfu,Tai Chi Touchstones by Douglas Wile, Tai-Chi Chuan by Yearning K. Chen, and Fundamentals of Tai Chi Chuan by Wen-Shan Huang. Also the I Ching (many translations), Tao te Ching by Lao Tsu (many translations). I myself haven’t been reading in the last few years, and I’m sure there are many excellent texts available. Read other people’s experiences to get an idea of what directions you might head in your studies. I’m sure social media is full of them.
3. Next, see if you can locate an instructor. If there is one in your area, find out, if you can, his or her background and area of interest. If you are a senior, for example, and the instructor is fairly new to Tai Chi and has a background in a hard martial art, it might not be the right person to help you. Look for someone who is focusing their instruction on your area of interest. Research.
4. If you cannot find an instructor, you must work hard on your own by reading Tai Chi books and watching Tai Chi videos. I devoted several years to making videos that people can actually learn from, not just watch someone go through the moves without any explanations. Learning from videos and written text is difficult, but can be done. Also, study anatomy and physiology. It will be invaluable as you move into your practice to visualize what is happening inside. As you move into teaching, it will help you to see student’s bad habits and help correct them.
5. The first step in learning the form is building up a strong base of support for all that is to follow. Standing meditation (Zhan Zhuang) is the place to start. It will build strength, balance, awareness of the lower body and center, calm and focus the mind. There is much to learn from standing. Work up to 15 – 60 minutes. Do your best, but don’t overdo. A little soreness at the beginning is to be expected, but not too much pain that persists for more than a couple of days. There is a lot of information on this process in books and on the internet. I have an excellent video called “Complete Yang Style Leg Techniques” that is invaluable to getting started. Study it closely.
6. Once one learns how to stand, the practice moves to all the other stances and steps. Tai Chi is a moving art, and one needs to be able to move freely and always be in balance. Study carefully all the stances and steps. Do not cut this stance practice short. It is a key to all that follows.
7. Now it is time to learn the form. I generally start students on the short form (34 moves) first. All the principles are there in an easier to digest period of learning. Very importantly, study the applications so you can have something concrete to focus on and make real in your body/mind. If you are in a class with others, you should start working with fellow students to build up the reality of what you are doing. Continue with standing meditation and maybe add a supportive Qigong exercise, but mainly focus on learning the form.
8. After learning the short form so that you can go through the movements on your own, and being able to call out the names, you are ready to proceed to a longer form, usually the long form (108 moves). Go through the same learning sequence. Practice every day, around 20-30 minutes is fine. Refresh your understanding of the classics. Don’t spend much time on viewing forms that are different than yours, at this time. Keep a journal, and make a video of what you are doing. Should take around a year to learn the long form, with applications and inner focus. Don’t rush. Remember, it is the journey, not just reaching the goal, that is important.
9. You can now start to add in workshops and classes in other areas of interest to your Tai Chi studies. Push Hands, weapons, Partner form, various qigong special exercises. Don’t do all at once. Take one exercise and really look closely at it, like you did for the short and long form.
10. If you have an instructor, now is the time to assist in classes. Be sure to tell the instructor you are interested, and if the instructor agrees, start, mostly by watching carefully how and why the instructor does what he or she does. Do not ever contradict or offer clarifications if the instructor hasn’t asked for them. Attend as many classes as you can. If you have been paying for classes, now you shouldn’t have to.
11. Depending on the size of the Tai Chi community, you could, on occasion, fill in and do the class on your own if you feel ready. If there are several instructors, you might suggest a new class at a new time with you as the primary instructor. The head of the school will decide if it is a good idea at this time.
12. By this time, several years from your start, you should be solid in what and why you are doing what you are doing. You can back off studying other forms and concentrate on your own form. You can always review the classic teachings, and you should understand them and be able to incorporate them into your own teaching.
13. There is no reason why you can’t be a “Master of Tai Chi”. It certainly is a matter of time, commitment, and talent. And do not go around beating your own drum. The masters I have met have been, without many exceptions, humble and giving. The masters love their art and want to share it with others. If money is needed and important, a career in teaching Tai Chi will not make you rich, but can provide a simple living. In my early years, I augmented my income by teaching Qigong, Yoga, doing massage, leading workshops and retreats, selling teaching aids, and T-shirts. It all helped to keep me on the path, and teaching classes helped my practice, as students will always ask questions of topics one hasn’t thought of before.
14. I remember asking Master Choy how one becomes a master of Tai Chi Chuan. His reply- “ You beat a recognized master in combat.” In the old days, that might have been valid. I don’t think we need to go to that place nowadays. Now one becomes a master by being recognized by the Tai Chi community. One does not have to have fighting experience, though I think push hands expertise is important. The bottom line is don’t go around calling yourself a master until others who are respected in the Tai Chi community, start. Just do your best, give respect to those who have gone before, studying their, and your, successes, and give a hand to those who follow in your footsteps. Master or not, it is a wonderful path to walk upon.