Following decades of teaching tai chi, I have found the art of instructing has morphed from merely showing a new student a movement and trying to ensure that he or she closely replicates that movement to helping the student discover that our body reveals details about ourselves as we perform the movement. I learned early on that many students initially begin tai chi for the benefits of gentle and safe exercise and with the hope of improving their health and well-being, but very often, there is a journey of self-discovery for both the teacher and the student beyond the exercise itself.
Many beginning tai chi students present with some type of physical problem or ailment. Sometimes the student is entirely aware of his or her issue but at other times, he or she is not. Many students remain blind to the reality that tai chi can influence one’s overall health and wellbeing, as many newer research studies are now suggesting.
From the very beginning of my tai chi teaching, I have encountered many students with varying kinds of physical problems. Typically, as instructors, we see students suffering with low back pain or discomfort. In one beginning class, I remember asking the students how many were dealing with low back problems. About 9 students out of 12 raised their hands.
What makes a tai chi instructor a particularly good teacher? Or perhaps, the question is, what are the requirements to being a good teacher? It seems to me that years of proficient tai chi practice alone is insufficient. Such practice must be married with sound instructional strategies and keen insight into teaching—a keenness that evolves and develops when one sees the student as a “best teacher” and one from whom we can learn our craft.
Everyone has health issues of one type or another. Although one practices tai chi, one may sometimes experience back pains as well. This admission is difficult for some experienced tai chi practitioners to make. So what is happening or not happening? My sense is that this can be an uncomfortable topic for some teachers. But surely this is an important topic to ponder because as many age, aches and pains become all too common. Not surprisingly then, the goal of tai chi is to prevent health problems in the first place and ease such problems as they appear though regular and daily practice.
But what happens to the practitioner who experiences a health issue, practices daily and yet still copes with ongoing aches or pain? While we could dismissively reply that this person could have been worse off had he or she not been practicing daily, I’m inclined to think that progressing from mediocre to exceptional tai chi is the key—that is, the benefits of tai chi is largely dependent on the maturity with which the student performs the movements.
Perhaps a better question is how can we help more students become exceptional practitioners? Perhaps we as teachers can become aware of the movements in a new way, where we are fully present within a move, suspending judgement and abiding in the experience and the flow of the sequence. It seems to me that such an attitude is healthy and healing.
As I have observed throughout my tai chi teaching career, many students report health improvements and often quickly so, and what tai chi teachers say and do can influence if and how students experience pain relief and health improvement. But how does that occur? What are the means by which students inch closer toward better health? Very often, health improvements occur because of the nature of the tai chi movement itself.
For example, the spine, or vertebral column, consists of cervical, thoracic and lumbar curves. There are 7 cervical vertebrae, 12 thoracic vertebra and 5 lumbar vertebra. Below that is the sacrum. These curves are essential in how we support and move ourselves. How we practice tai chi affect these spinal curves and in turn, these curves affect how we practice tai chi.
Sometimes distortions in these natural curves will give an indication of improper conditioning of excessive wear and tear and these will present themselves in the tai chi movements. This will give us a way to work with the movements to improve the overall body and structure.
These movements must be choreographed and augmented and sometimes uniquely individualized for each student. Doing so will likely prove essential for students with structural or functional limitations. It will take a keen and observant teacher to analyze a student’s motion and then adapt their movement to their uniqueness.