Beginning students typically strive to emulate their teacher's tai chi movements but predictably, the imitative behaviours of novice practitioners do not closely approximate the precise movements of their seasoned teacher. Merely seeing a modelled behaviour doesn’t necessarily mean that one can replicate it.
Some behaviours are too complex or otherwise are not in the behavioural repertoire of the student. Some students may present with physical constraints that prevent them from replicating their teacher’s movement.
Mere modelling a prescribed set of standardized movements may result in the student’s failure. Attentive teachers would do well to be prepared to help students adapt the movements to better suit the uniqueness of their bodies.
Imagine a student’s knee moving into an excessive medial rotation (knee pulls towards the middle) that compromises the integrity of the movement. The support structure becomes compromised and unstable therefore creating distortions in the tai chi movement.
The attentive teacher will be able to correct the movement by realigning the knee. More often that not, an incorrect movement, appearing to be correct from an outside observer, may accentuate an existing condition. This is often the case with someone who presents with excessive lordosis (excessive inward curving) of their lower back. Without proper guidance and correction, the student may amplify his lordosis and create increased lower back discomfort.
How to do a tai chi assessment and what to look for?
Keen and focused observation will lead to our skill level improving and making us better teachers. This will also shape an intuitive sense to our teaching such that there may come a time when the teacher will just “know” what to do with a student even though the teacher may not have ever performed that type of correction previously.
Following a scan of the student’s body while he repeats a movement and perhaps gaining an overall feeling or intuitive sense of the effect of the movement in the student’s body, the teacher can begin specific assessments. However, the teacher should be alert: there are usually many unseen factors that contribute to a student's performance of a movement. Even being watched by the teacher or other students can effect how a student moves.
As another example, a student may present with tight psoas muscles (core muscles connecting the lower back to the femur) that limits his range of motion. Such inflexibility in these muscles may affect the quality of their movement thus constraining the student. Perhaps in this case, his low back.
Generally, muscle problems in one area may result in the student compensating in other areas. For example, a one-sided lower back contraction may create an imbalance in the shoulders and upper back.
Students with past injures may frequently present with uniqueness in their tai chi movements. It is not uncommon for tai chi to elicit movements consistent with a past injury.
Even when a student is stationary, teachers can quickly look at shoulder and hip levels as well as knee alignments. However, what may be most helpful and challenging is to examine these same features when the student is in motion.
Detecting distortion in a student’s movement has a twofold effect: First it can aid our analysis, and second, and perhaps more importantly, it may suggest what is occurring within the body—insight that can lead to specific correction. This gives us the opportunity to assist the student and as a result, the student advances in his tai chi.
It is always the case that the quality and texture of the tissues are a determining factor in how easy or difficult it will be to help the student resolve his or her issues. For example, when tissues feel frozen and inflexible, then the problem tends to be more ingrained in the body and more difficult to resolve. In such instances, I would tend to have the student perform small movements to see if the movement itself is restricted and compromised. Sometimes the student can move easily and other times he or she cannot. Such movement assessment offers much insight into what is happening within a student's body.