On Breathing in Tai Chi Chuan

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There are a a few different meanings on, and things written about, breathing in Tai Chi Chuan. Especially if you have two different teachers who teaches different things, it can be hard to understand what is correct and what is wrong. In my own opinion, there are certainly things that many people say about breathing that are wrong, but for me personally, it took some time to reach to the point where I could be confident enough to express a strict view on how it should be done.

Breathing should be deep and full. Yet, it should be natural and be left alone. You need to teach your body to do what it should do. And then you need to learn how to trust your body that it understand what to do and when. I will tell you this: Your body is always smarter than you, so you just need to learn how to let go of the control and let the body work by itself.

There are some important things to understand about breathing in Tai Chi. First, there are two different opinions about how to coordinate, or not coordinate, breathing with movements. And then, people usually distinguish two different types of breathing.

Coordinating breathing or not in Tai Chi practice

There are two different main opinions on how to breath in Tai Chi:

  • Breath should be consciously coordinated together with the movements of the form
  • Breath should not be controlled, but follow the movements naturally.

So, some people say that you should coordinate your breath together with the movements. And others say that you should let the breath be and let it naturally follow the movements. To not linger and make this unnecessarily complicated, I will just say that the first is wrong. To actively trying to coordinate breath and movement is a mistake that might have become common by Tai Chi being influenced by modern Qigong. Tai Chi is something else.

Instead, you should forget about the breathing and let it the movements and the body, what you do, let decide how you breath. Yes, you should breath deep and full. But this does not come from trying to force the breath. Correct fullness and depth of the breath comes by you learning to relax and calm your mind and body.

And to be frank, I don’t think I have seen anyone, not even those who preach active coordination, that actually coordinates movement and breath will practicing form. Trying to do this will just make both your breath and movements uncomfortable and unnatural. But remember that one of the keywords in Tai Chi practice is always Ziran, or keeping things “natural”.

Most of the people who believe that you should coordinate breath and movement say that when you start the form and lift the arms, you should breath in. When you sink the arms, you should breath out. Also, when the arms move out from the body, you should breath out and when you move the arms back, towards the body, you should breath in.

The funny thing with some of the people who preaches about this type of coordinating the breath consciously, is that they believe that it should take one hour to do the long Yang style Tai Chi form. Think about this for a minute. If one single movement, as in when you open up your arms in “Split the wild horses mane”, “Single Whip” or “Crane shows its Wings”, takes 20 or 30 seconds to do, you would need to breath, very, very slow, and it would surely often become tense and unnatural. If you do like this, you will have broken one of the most important rules – Ziran, or moving in a “natural” manner.

So obviously, it is impossible to coordinate the breath in an exact pattern while practicing a form or drills, and at the same time keep the breath natural and unrestrained. The correct way is to let the breath be left alone and learn how to trust your breath to let it regulate itself.

Understanding deep, natural breathing through the trinity of mind-breath-body

The easiest way to learn how mind, breath and body is integrated as a whole is to just stand in a natural form starting position, or wuji stance, with the feet parallell and shoulder width apart. Now, stand comfortably and just relax your body, put your awareness to different parts of your body as jaws, neck, chest, shoulders, lower back, knees.

Take your time and feel the tension in these areas and release the tension. Get rid of unnecessary tension by relaxing. When you have gone through the body with your awareness a few times, you will soon understand that the relaxation and calmness of mind, breath and body are completely connected with each other. If you relax either mind, body or breath, the other two will follow. Relaxing the body relaxes and deepen the breath as well as it calms down the mind.

Therefore, Tai Chi practice focuses mainly on relaxation of the body while in movement. As relaxation demands attention of the mind, the breath and mind will automatically calm down and breath will automatically follow the movements when you are relaxed. The only thing that might prevent you from deepening this process is if you are a beginner and need to think too much about how movements should look like or about what movement follow next.

So if you are a beginner, it’s better to not force yourself with daily practicing a long sequence of a form until you really remember the whole form without the need to think about the sequence of the individual movements. Do the form as much you remember occasionally until you know it well. But for your daily practice, it’s better to practice individual movements or to break out a short sequence and practice those.

If you practice like this and always train to calm your mind and relax your body, the breath will learn by itself how to regulate itself, how to stay deep and it will shift naturally between inhaling and exhaling according to your movements.

Two types of breathing

Teachers usually speak about two different types of breathing in Tai Chi:

  • Natural breathing
  • Reverse breathing

Natural breathing in Tai Chi Chuan

Natural breathing in Tai Chi is usually understood as the common way people breath in daily life. When you breath in, the belly goes out. And when you breath out, the belly goes in. But exactly how, or how much, depends on how deep or shallow your natural breathing is.

Reverse breathing in Tai Chi Chuan

Reverse breathing, also called Taoist breathing, is, in contrast to natural breathing, usually explained as a learned way of breathing where the belly expands as you breath out, and contracts inwards as you breath in. This is often regarded as an advanced type of breathing that should not be tried until at least two years of practice.

Reverse breathing in Tai chi explained

So, there you have the two types of breathing as how different teachers usually explain them. Now you might see a problem here. Or maybe not, but I will explain: If you believe that breath should always be consciously controlled in a certain pattern, then you will not have any contradiction between the common explanations between natural and reverse breathing.

But I have already said that this is a mistake, you should not control and try to coordinate the breath. So how will you learn reverse breathing if you should not coordinate your breath? My personal answer is that I believe that most things about reverse breathing, how it is understood and explained, are wrong and based on mistakes. Many teachers just keep on repeating what they have read, or have heard their teachers say, without doing much thinking by themselves.

Reverse breathing is not an advanced type of breathing. It’s not some kind of special Taoist breathing method that will make your Qi stronger or enhance your martial arts skills. It’s not even something that should be taught at a certain stage. All of this would be wrong.

Instead, reverse breathing is nothing else than a natural functional breathing pattern. The breathing is functional as it means that you have understood the functions of the movements of the form and perform them in the same way as you used them as applications against a partner.

Think and imagine how you breath and how the body naturally coordinates itself when you push something heavy, as a car. Or what happens to the belly when you blow up an inflatable beach ball or a balloon. When you breath out, your chest will flatten and your belly will move out, expand. This is not something you ever need to think about, but something which occurs automatically without even needing to think about how you breath.

In the same way, when you practice your form, as you move your arms forward to push, you should breath out and the belly should expand. The diaphragm presses downward on the abdominal cavity, which bulges forward. So what is called reverse breathing is a “belly breathing” method, also called diaphragmatic breathing, but with the inhale and expansion of the belly reversed.

There should be nothing unnatural or tense about this type of breathing. It should come natural and regulate itself according to your own movements. But to understand how to breath this way, you need to first learn how to deepen the natural breath, from chest breathing to diaphragmatic breathing. You would probably also need to have spent some time practicing push hands and form movement applications with a partner, so to learn the proper functions of the movements of the form.

So, when you know how to naturally breath deeply, and have had sufficient partner training so that you understand how Tai Chi works in practical practice, you should be able to move and breath correctly throughout the whole form. And this is also a reason why practicing Tai Chi as a martial art is essential for an overall correct understanding of Tai Chi solo practice.

Was Baguazhang really invented by Dong Haichuan?

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Baguazhang, or Bagua (older romanisation: Pa Kua or Pa Kua Chang), meaning “Eight Triagram Palm” is just like Xingyiquan one of the “internal” sisters arts of Taijiquan. If you don’t know about this art or have no interest in it, I doubt that you will have any interest in what I write here. Hang on if you want.

The origin of Baguazhang is debated, but it has become generally accepted that a eunuch and tax collector with the name of Dong Haichuan(1797 or 1813 – 1882), would be the inventor of this art. But in fact, there are some evidence that points to that the art of Baguazhang should be older and might have been taught by other people.

Dong Haichuan lived in closed quarters as a bodyguard for Prince Su, and later he got the mission from the Prince to collect taxes. This means that he only had a few students and not much time to teach except for Yin Fu who travelled nine years with Dong. The others he didn’t teach for a long time, and also, he acted as a teacher mostly later in life when he was old and poor and lived together with his students. As his students learned from Dong in different times and for different amount of times, they adapted Dong’s teachings in very different ways. Most people associate Bagua with the expression of Cheng Style from Cheng Tinghua, which was also adapted to Sun Style Bagua, but in fact, the variations of Bagua Styles and schools are big and they can look very different.

However, all Bagua styles have in common so called “circle walking”, some basic movements and the same kind of structure, though the content of what is taught can be more or less complex. The most common story, of how Dong originally learned his art, says that Dong learned exercises from Daoists and adapted them to martial arts. But the thing is that no one knows exactly what kind of exercises he learned. No one seem to be able to even come up with anything similar. Some people suggest that the circle walking comes from chants or religious ceremonies.

As this is a theory not backed by any kind of proofs and made up without any kind of explanation, I would suggest to leave those speculations alone and look at facts. One fact we can mention, is that it’s a very common thing in Chinese duel kind of swordplay, to walk around in circles, in order to try to find openings and angles to attack the opponent. Also, the basic movements of Bagua can all be made with a Chinese broadsword or dao (large saber). Even the rear hand in broadsword play, that is used to support and stabilise the weapon mostly for defensive movements, is evident in the basic Bagua movements.

So it’s very simple really, the circling and basic movements all come from basic swordplay, things that Dong had to practice and become skilled in due to the services as a bodyguard and tax collector. In many Chinese styles, the exact same movements that are performed in barehanded boxing systems can be performed with different kinds of weapons, so this adaption is not something new or original. But the footwork in Bagua is not adapted from what was commonly used in battlefield combat, and that you can see in many other martial art styles, but comes more from one-against-one duelling and defence against only a few opponents, as robbers and burglars.

However, there is still no evidence that it was Dong Haichuan who invented Baguazhang. One of the clues is something we can find in Sun Lutang’s book The Voices of Sun Lutang’s Teachers. First, when Sun Lutang cites his teacher Chen Tinghua, no one of them ever claim that Dong Haichuan invented Bagua. But even more revealing, Chang Tinghua said to Sun Lutang:

To practice the method of Bagua Boxing, first find a knowledgeable teacher to instruct you who knows the meaning within the boxing art and the order of the sequence.

Read it carefully and let this sink in for a moment. What is clearly indicated here is that there are other Bagua teachers. Cheng doesn’t say anything about that only a few taught the art, or that it would be hard to find a Bagua teacher. He says it in the way like it was possible to pick and choose amongst teachers. So from this statement, I can only presume that there must have been other Bagua teachers around except the few well known students of Dong Haichuan.

There are a few others than me who believe that history points to that Bagua should not have been created by Dong Haichuan. Very well respected Martial Arts Historian for instance, William Hu (who was more or less raised in an imperial library and probably has more knowledge than the very most people about traditional Chinese arts, and also a vast knowledge about Chinese culture and history in general), thought that Dong Haichuan was only one of several who taught Baguazhang at his own time. He also claimed that he had seen evidence that the name Baguazhang should be have been in use earlier than his time. Exactly what proofs he had is something he never explained. Sadly he had planned to write books and the internal arts and Taijiquan, but for different reasons, he abandoned a book that was already partially written. However, you can read his basic view about Baguazhang in this classical article.

And the third evidence that Dong Haichuan did not invent the art is maybe the most evident. And this is a related art, a very similar art with a similar name: Yin Yang Bapanzhang. From the records, this art is even older than Baguazhang. Some people believe that Dong Haichuan originally learned this art and was one of three disciples of Yin Yang Bapanzhang teacher Dong Linmeng. However, there is no evidence of this.

That two very similar styles should be developed around the same time by two different people is highly unlikely. Using my own judgement examining the clues together, it seems very unlikely that the art of Baguazhang would have been invented by Dong Haichuan. As this tradition seems to have been mostly practiced by bodyguards, security personnel and similar, some of the art might have disappeared after the need for this kind of people decreased and as firearms became more frequently used. Or it might have vanished as martial arts was banned. We don’t know for sure, maybe we’ll find more clues in the future. But still, it seems like some things might have been lost.

The Earlier Names of Tai Chi Chuan Explained

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The name T’ai Chi Ch’uan, or Taijiquan (太極拳), wasn’t really common until the late 19th century. The well known scholar Weng Tonghe who was a court examiner in the late 19th century saw Yang Luchan (1799–1872) and dedicated a short poem to him: “Hands holding T’ai chi shakes the whole world, a chest containing ultimate skill defeats a gathering of heroes.”. (In texts about T’ai Chi, Weng is often mentioned as Ong Tong He. Ong is how the family name Weng is written in Fujian dialect, a dialect also common in Taiwan. Sometimes both “Weng Tonghe” and “Ong Tong He” is used together in the same texts meaning two different persons. This is actually a common mistake, maybe originating from someone who collected material from different sources. But it is the same person.)

As this name was created to describe Yang Luchan’s Tai Chi Chuan, in a sense, even though the art has much older origin, it could be said that Yang Luchan was the creator of the art of Tai chi chuan. Or at least it could be said that he was the father of the modern Tai chi chuan. Chen stylists will obviously disagree.

If the name T’ai chi ch’uan came from this poem that Weng wrote or if the name was something that Weng already had heard is unclear. However, it’s very clear that the name T’ai Chi Ch’uan didn’t start to become popularised until the middle of the 19th century. Before this, the art that Yang Lu Chan had been taught by Chen Changxing had several different names. There are also old names that are nowadays attributed to the art of Tai Chi Chuan, names that are mentioned in old texts as Daoist exercises. And there are many different opinions about how much related the original exercises are to the art practiced today. That is a much longer and more complicated discussion. Here I will satisfy myself by briefly introducing a few older and alternative names to Tai Chi Chuan.

So here I am going to address the five most well known, previous names of Taijiquan. There are still others, as well as variations. But in this post, I will settle with the five most well known names.

(To not confuse the systems of romanisations, I will from here and onwards use Pinyin and the romanisation Taijiquan instead of the older maybe still more well known way of writing the name as Tai Chi or Tai Chi Chuan.)


The 5 previous names of Taijiquan are:

  • Changquan (长拳 )- “Long Fist”
  • Sanshiqi (三十七) – “37”
  • Shisanshi 十三势 – “13 Postures”
  • Mianquan (绵拳) – “Continuos Fist”
  • Roushou (软手) – “Soft hand”

Changquan – Long Fist

The most well known older or alternative name of Taijiquan is Changquan. This is the name found in the old Tai Chi classics that was compiled by Yang Lu Chan’s student Wu Jianquan. According to Wu Jianquan, the texts he found in a salt shop, or maybe as some people believe, brought home from the Zhaobao, an older name of Taijiquan should be Changquan, literary Long Fist, or Long Boxing.

However, this name is misunderstood. The name refers to the Jiangzi river, which in Chinese is called the Changjiang, or long river. In China, only the mouth of the river is called Jiangzi. In the Tai Chi classics, it is said that Changquan is flowing unceasingly like the Jiangzi River and the great ocean: “長拳者,如長江大海滔滔不絕也. Or actually, it says Long River, 長江Changjiang. But for some reason, people don’t associate “long river” to the Long River, the river bearing that name, but instead translate the characters literary to : “long river”. It’s a bit peculiar, but Chinese translators tend to do the same mistake as well. Anyway, the use of “water” to describe the movements of Tai Chi is a well known and much used analogy.

Nowadays the name “Changquan” is mostly recognised as “Shaolin Longfist”, a general name of Shaolin Longfist styles. Shaolin Longfist uses large, stretched movements. Modern Wushu basically takes its expression from classical Longfist. Shaolin Longfist is also what is traditionally used in the Beijing Opera.

Sanshiqi – 37

The name Sanshiqi means “37” and Sanshiqi shi means the 37 postures. This is a name of a Daoist exercise associated with a Daoist called Xu Xuanping mentioned as early as in the 10th century. The Daoist exercise is believed to be a post-Tai Chi exercise or maybe the original Taijiquan. The name of Sanshiqi is also the name of an old Taoist sect. Some people, as Tai Chi book author Huang Wenshan in his “Fundamentals of Tai Chi Ch’uan”, claims that it was Xu Xuanping who started the Sanshiqi sect.

If we break down the traditional 88 0r 108 movements of the Yang Cheng Fu form of Yang style Taijiquan, and take away all of the repetitions and similar movements, we will end up with 36 individual movements. Some people say 37, some people say 36. I am myself leaning more towards 36. Some people speculate that one posture or sequence might have been lost.

However, this breakdown of the Yang style, and the number of them, is one of the reasons why some people still insists that the Yang form is older and more original than the Chen style forms practiced today. Chen style has a few movements that are not found in the other 4 most popular Tai Chi styles.

The name Sanshiqi in itself is interesting and has another meaning than just “37”. But this is all a rather complicated subject and will need a good bit of writing to make it justice. I will try to write something about it in the future, earlier or later. Or, as I have been thinking about, maybe make a video to better “show and tell” what it’s really about. We will just have to see what I will make of it or when I have time enough to explain it better.

Shisanshi – 13 Postures

Shisanshi, or the “Thirteen Postures”, is also an old name of something that is proposed to be a basic set of thirteen movements and is also a name of something said to be the “original” Taijiquan. Often, this name is said to be the name of what the legendary founder of Taijiquan, Zhang Sanfeng, taught. Some people say that the 13 postures was meant by the 8 energies or gates in Taijiquan and the 5 elements mentioned in the Tai Chi Classics. Here, the traditional concepts of the 8 hexagrams and the 5 elements, are used to describe basic hand methods and footwork.

Mianquan – Continuos Fist

This was probably the name originally used by Yang style creator Yang Luchan taught. Sometimes the character of cotton, “棉” is used instead of this mian: “绵”. The character “绵” is also used for cotton, but actually means “silk-floss”, “soft” and in some dialects it means “mild mannered”. Both characters though have the same connotation of “continuous.” The name is derived from the practicing method, that the movements of the exercises are performed as a long, continuous movement without interruption. Although many translate the name to “cotton boxing” I would suggest that the original analogy would be “silk.” Historically speaking, there’s a strong connection between Taijiquan and silk, much more so than to “cotton”.

Roushou – Soft hand

Roushou is said to have been a popular name amongst common people, both practitioners and non-practitioners. Another variation of this name is “Rougong” or, maybe best translated as, “Soft skill practice.” The name Roushou is often confused with Rouquan, or “Soft Boxing”, which is a “soft” Shaolin style. Shaolin Rouquan is said to be a higher level Shaolin art only taught to advanced practitioners. And yet others say that it was designed for older practitioners who could not practice as hard as the younger students.

Awareness – A Key to Happiness (According to Science)

I thought that I had no inspiration to write about Tai Chi. And actually I don’t have, and I am not going to. I haven’t had any inspiration or ideas for writing about Tai Chi for quite some time, even though I can admit that I have already begun writing drafts for at least 50 new posts. Some of them might be published. Maybe. We’ll have to see about that…

…However, I just read an article about travel, experiences and most of all how to achieve happiness. Actually it was an assignment I had, an assignment to optimise it and publish it for a client (If you didn’t already know, my profession is SEO and digital marketing). I went to check the sources and found some interesting research.

Apparently “trying to be happy” doesn’t work very well. “Trying to be happy” can leave you with a feeling of not being successful in this pursuit and work opposite to what you try to achieve – to become even more unhappy. Buying things and getting money doesn’t last very well either. Many things doesn’t work. Some doesn’t because of so called “negative bias”, and sometimes we have an idea about happiness that doesn’t match reality, or doesn’t meet up with our expectations. So the very pursuit of happiness is a bad idea if you want to sort of reach a state where you are “sort of happy”, or happier, or whatever.

Happiness is a bad idea as a long-term goal because it is a “fluctuating emotion.” Well, according to what psychologist Itai Ivtzan says in an article for Psychology Today it is. Most things we associate with happiness have to do with a short moment of a hedonistic feeling as eating a pizza, again according to Itai. So what should we do to be happy?

Experiences, travelling and so on seem to be better sources to happiness and leave a longer impression. However, people like Richard Davidson, founder and director of the Center For Healthy Minds told Huffington post that rather than speaking about happiness, he preferred to speak about “well-being”. And this is something he means is a more reasonable approach to a long-time goal, which in turn can lead to more happiness.

What I personally finds most interesting is that he speaks a lot about cultivating awareness and also mention “mindfulness” (I think I need to insert here, that I am not a great fan of this term. You should not go around trying to keep your mind “full”, so this name can give some wrong associations. At least from a Tai Chi perspective). If you have read this blog you might have read my post that I believe that cultivating awareness is the real key to success in Tai Chi Chuan. Well, to be more precise, I do speak about “body awareness”, but in a sense, I do believe that it’s the same thing. A greater awareness about your body and more knowledge about yourself leads to greater general awareness. Tai Chi practice is a way, through practical practice, achieve more awareness.

Davidson also mentions “meta-awareness” as a key, and says that “cultivating meta-awareness helps you to deliberately direct and sustain your attention.” This description suits more the type of awareness built through Tai Chi Chuan practice. We don’t only build up awareness about things around us, but it helps us to stay tuned with awareness about our awareness. And this of course is an important aspect of Tai Chi as a martial art. To become better aware of all of the things happening around you in a specific moment, you need to have a method to tune, “direct and sustain your attention.”

Well, exactly how all of this leads to happiness, or to more well-being, is not an exact science, but studies show that a focused mind with heightened awareness in fact does in fact lead to a better overall feeling of well-being, and that a shattered and distracted mind leads to feelings of stress and unhappiness.

I do think that “the power of habit”, and as the rings on the water, I wrote about Tai Chi practice can lead you to a better life has a lot to do with this that awareness should lead to well-being. One thing leads to another, and the things you do have impact on other things in your life. Awareness about yourself and your life, as well as the proposed idea on “meta-awareness”, might be important keys.

I like very much Laozi’s words about that people tend to seek what is far away but forget about what is near. Forgetting about grasping for what you cannot reach and to start looking inwards to yourself, is what many religions and philosophical teachings speak about. It all seems to start and end with yourself, or the “I”.

We all need certain basic things in our lives, a place to live, a daily intake of foods and nourishments etc. But when those basic needs are filled, we all do have a choice to where we aim our energy and what we strive towards in our lives. I am certainly not someone who would advice anyone to give up their dreams and hopes for what they can achieve for the outer world. I am not someone that would propose that all of our happiness is only about “what is close”. But I do believe that we all need to balance ourselves and our lives, by not forgetting about “what is close” and to look inwards to ourselves, and maybe also to keep aiming for what can only be achieved by what is close. And when it comes to all of this, the art of Tai Chi Chuan certainly gives all of us practitioners a powerful tool.

A couple of Laozi (Daodejing) quotes to wrap it all up:

“Without opening your door,
you can open your heart to the world.
Without looking out your window,
you can see the essence of the Tao.”

“Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength; 
mastering yourself is true power.”
 

On How to Be a Great Tai Chi Chuan Teacher

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Lately, I’ve been asked by a few individuals who liked my writings to not only write something more about learning and studying, but also to write something that focus more on teaching aspects. So far I have written a whole lot about learning (like this post) and how to become a good practitioner. But teaching is something that I have always been reluctant to write about. First, teaching is something very individual and I don’t like to preach about how others should do it. As students are all different and different types of students need different types of teaching, there is no real point in telling people about what is bad or about who can’t teach. But still, teaching is an interesting subject which is hard to completely disregard.

But also, before getting starting with trying to verbalize my thoughts on how to be a great teacher, I should be honest about that, as a teacher, I don’t consider myself as anywhere near great. Nowadays, I only teach in private sessions to individual students, or for small groups not larger than 3 or 4 persons. I teach in my own way, and only things that I like myself, so there are a lot of things I won’t teach, and because of this my teaching is limited and not suitable for everyone. Maybe the people who like me and the things I do might consider it fun and rewarding to learn from me. But they don’t expect me to teach “like everyone else“.

So here are my dos and don’ts regarding teaching, and what to do to be a great teacher. If you want to fill in the gaps with things I have forgotten to mention, object, or if you have ideas related to these things, please feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments.

Don’t try to earn a living on teaching

Just let’s face it, there are already very few people who get a liking for tai chi enough to consider practicing it, and even fewer who are really serious and want to dig deeper into the art. If you want to earn your living on teaching Tai Chi, the income will always be more important than the content of teaching. You can’t really get around this. Then you need to arrange your school, classes and teaching in such a way that you will make sure you can have an income that you could live on. This would mean that you would always need to deliver what people expect.

If you teach Tai Chi as a martial art, you would probably at least consider some kind of grading system, some standard types of clothing or uniforms, or maybe print your logo on T-shirts. You would need to teach using a standard curriculum which everyone has to follow. If you want to develop your school into several classes, or even more schools, you would need to build up Some sort of hierarchy, which is something maybe not every serious practitioner would find an easy thing to accept. But you would really need to do this as senior students could take over your classes and teach their own classes.

It would take time to build up a larger organization, but it’s not an impossible thing to do, not even with Tai Chi Chuan. But every step you take in this direction would have to be more about building up a brand while figuring out what people want and expect, rather than about teaching Tai Chi as it was supposed to teach or even what Tai Chi could be if presented through it’s full potential. So obviously, the quality of your teaching, and what you teach, will have to suffer in one way or another if building up a big organization to secure an income is your main goal. There’s just no way to get around this problem.

So if you are going to focus only at being as a great teacher as possible, it is likely that you would not be able to earn much on teaching. But of course, if you are a great practitioner who has developed some rare skills people are looking for to learn, you might have people paying big money to learn from you. However, this would more likely be through smaller classes and private sessions, because teaching larger classes is the second thing you should not do if you want to become a great Tai Chi teacher.

Keep the classes small

Think about it for a while, think about how different types of classes are usually taught in music, arts and handicrafts. The real good teachers who teaches the most gifted students and produce the most high quality students always teach only very small groups or in private. Of course you would want to rather hire a great private teacher for your kid‘s piano lessons than put him or her in a public class. You would get full attention every single minute of those private classes. Learning and developing would go much faster. For a gifted student, there is often no other way to continue to develop further than to find a great private teacher.

Now, think about professional magicians, how they actually teach their students or disciples who really learns the art and the methods that are always hidden away from the public. The illusionist as a teacher usually only has one or two, or maybe a handful of students. This is how the art of professional magic is transferred from teacher to student, through a close relationship. This might be the modern type of teaching that comes closest to traditional Chinese martial arts teaching.

In the older days, teachers in the Chinese martial arts would mostly teach only through their own blood line, like someone in older days who dealt with pottery for a living, who learned from his own father and passed the skills onwards to his own sons, so they in turn could make a living on it. In older China, Martial Arts were mostly either a tradition only kept within the family or to very close friends, but sometimes they could be transmitted just like how professional illusionists do today. Still, they would mostly only teach it to maybe two or three trustworthy students or disciples in order to keep the secrets from reaching the public. Sometimes a martial arts skill was a kind of trading skill, but still, those skills were mostly only taught to a few.

And this is the way a Chinese Martial Art should be taught, within closed doors and in private, or at least in small classes. This is how a student can build up real skills (if the teacher really wants his or her students to become skilled, but this is for another topic.). However, If you only want to teach Tai Chi as a lightweight health exercise, there doesn’t need to be any kind of skill involved, and you don’t need to keep the classes extremely small.

Keep the hippies and Qi-huggers together in a separate class

But still, if you want to teach Tai Chi for health only, or teach both types of students – health and Martial Arts practitioners, keeping them separated in different classes is a good idea to consider. There are people who will never understand, or just refuse to accept, that the greatest health benefits from studying Tai Chi Chuan goes through practicing it as a martial arts. There are people who hate every type of violence and would never even simulate a punch properly because they don’t want to learn correct punching.

Therefore, it’s often better to keep this type of people away from the people who are mostly interested in the Martial Arts and combat aspects. Most Tai Chi teachers will mix everyone together in the same class, but personally I don’t like this approach. One suggestion you could consider is to start a class with 45 minutes to an hour as a mixed group, teaching basic exercises, forms and qigong type of stuff to these minutes, and then after a small break where the health-only enthusiasts can leave, you can continue on with the fighting applications, Push hands and so on. Martial Arts enthusiasts often need more teaching and more time with the teacher than the health-only people. So you might also think about charging them differently. But how to charge different people? This is another question.

Don’t charge too much, but also don’t teach for free

I’ve already said this, but it’s highly unlikely that you could earn a living on teaching Tai Chi. You will Most likely to need a regular job as your main income. So there’s really no need to be greedy. You don’t need to charge a lot. In China, many traditional teachers who only have a few students and teach in the traditional way, mainly inside their own homes, won’t charge anything. It’s often even considered ugly to ask for money.

So what the students do, is that they often buy their teacher useful gifts, fruits, foods, etc. If the teacher is old, students might help out fix something that is broken, go shopping and help out with other practical things. But a teacher won’t ask about those things, as Chinese people have this tradition in their own culture so Chinese students will do this by themselves without anyone having to ask for anything. And mostly, a Chinese student will feel uncomfortable trying to get something for free, and understand that he or she must get something in return. But if they don’t do this, the teacher might become reluctant to teach the goods or will stop teaching the student.

But here in the West, it’s a bit different, we mostly live in more selfish societies, so we don’t have this culture of giving things without knowing when and what to get back. So here it’s better to charge something. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but if you won’t charge anything at all, there’s a great risk that the students will get lazy, or come and go as they like. If they don’t pay something, they won’t feel the need to get the most value from what they have payed. So mostly, just to keep people coming to the classes, they need to pay something. Then, if you want to use the money to cover classroom expenses, preparing snacks for the classes or use it to buy them a dinner at the end of the semester, is all up to you. But you should really ask for something, even if it’s just to make sure that the students understand that they should show up regularly.

Focus on individual progress

Again, take a look at how Playing different instruments are being taught. Every student is different, some people learn slower and some people faster. Teaching people the same amount of hours, or keeping a curriculum of exactly one or two years, in order to let them progress one step further, would be an absolutely ridiculous thing to consider for any music teacher. Everyone want their students to progress as fast as possible, or at least to keep to the students own pace.

In Tai Chi schools, dragging the progress by keeping people to stay at the same level is something I regard as completely ridiculous. A good teacher wants their students to progress, and will keep on pushing them to develop further. If you keep faster, gifted students in a lower level than their own potential, they will leave. They will certainly leave and find someone much better than you, someone who understands what they personally need.

Keep the teaching personal, but also focused and professional

So keeping the classes personal and focusing on the individual is the best thing you can do, which again means that you can not have more students than what you can handle to teach on a more personal and individual level. But keeping classes personal should also mean to keep them focused, and the teacher should have a professional approach.

I myself like to hear a teacher telling related stories and I love to learn more about culture and history. But when people goes to class just to socialize and speak about what they did the last weekend, a teacher should step in and not let the lazy bunch derail the classes, or spend unnecessary time on personal nonsense. So personal here as a teacher means keeping attention to the individual student’s need, and not to waste time by getting too personal.

Be honest in your marketing to attract the right type of people

My final advice is to market yourself in a way that feels comfortable, confident, natural and honest. Don’t market or brand yourself through your teacher, your great Grandmaster or through an organization. You are the teacher, so brand yourself as a teacher, and not as someone’s student. It’s you, yourself who is going to teach your students, and not your chief instructor who you haven’t met in ten years, and it’s not your Great Grandmaster who has already been dead for 57 years. What and how you teach is about you and only about you. So if you want to get the students that will like what you are teaching, let them know you and make people understand what and how you teach.

And also: Don’t give people the same type of generalized curriculums that everyone else give to presumptive students and don’t just state what someone is supposed to learn in Tai Chi. Personalization of your own personal branding will be exactly what makes you to stand out from the crowd. Everyone teach in more or less the same way, so what do you offer and what can a student expect from you? The statements on your poster, flyer and homepage need all to be personal so that the teaching, and what you offer feels specific, clear and hopefully a little bit different from the crowd.

But at the same time, keep in mind that not everything is about you. As a teacher, you want some kind of recognition, but your students want to be recognized as well. Think about this for a while. Everyone student is unique and special, so how can you let a student know if you have the ability to see the individual student and can give him or her something personal, something that just that person needs? Maybe you cannot come up with a simple answer, but I do believe that this is something good to consider, both as a teacher and as you approach others as a Tai Chi teacher. As a teacher you need to know how to see and listen to each and everyone of your students. If a potential student can feel that you can do this, even before he or she shows up in your class, you have already won a great race with competitors in an already too crowded market.

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And that’s all folks, …at least for now. I have a feeling that it will take some time before I write anything more on “Tai Chi Thoughts.” But as I am writing about teaching, I can give you a little tip. There’s a book called “The Martial Arts Teacher” By Jonathan Bluestein. He is a very experienced teacher and has a lot of thoughts and insights to offer. But before deciding if you want to buy it or take a closer look at it, you can read my interview with him here.

©David RL – Thoughts on Tai Chi