Tai Chi Teaching Styles

"So THAT's What It's Supposed to Feel Like!"

"So That's What It's Supposed to Feel Like!" - A Guide to Tai Chi Teaching Styles

Last updated on by Al Simon

The three teaching styles that Tai Chi instructors use

In our free, online tai chi lessons, right in the first lesson, we teach an exercise to give you the "correct" feeling that Tai Chi is supposed to produce.

It's a simple exercise, something you might even have done as a child.

But it's designed to get you to feel like a "Tai Chi master" - or at least feel a certain movement the way a master feels it - right in your first lesson.

The response I get when I teach this exercise - in-person or online - is amazing.

Before we had our current Tai Chi free lessons, I first taught this exercise online in a newsletter. Here are just two of the dozens of responses I got to that first time teaching this online:

Hello, My name is Clifton Jackson and I just received my ChiFusion newsletter. I read and I tried The Kinesthetic Approach - How to "Feel" Like a Tai Chi Master. I'm a Doer and I performed the experiment and it WORKED! My arms just floated upwards effortlessly! I was simply amazed!! What a Concept!! So, this is what "It" feels like!!! Well Done to all there!!! Thanks!!

- Clifton Jackson

Dear Al, Thank you for all the information you have sent me. I used the Pushing the Wall exercise [from the newsletter] in both tai chi and qigong classes I teach. Everyone was as amazed as was I the first time I practiced it! I had never been exposed to that before.

Theresa Kirke

You may wonder, why did so many people - whether they are beginning students or accomplished instructors - respond so positively to the exercise? What makes this exercise so special?


WHEN YOU LOOK AT HOW Tai Chi is taught, there are three different methods that instructors use. I like to call them The "Three E's" of Tai Chi Teaching Styles. And for many people, the exercise in our free lessons - the one that they so enthusiastically respond to - is their first taste of the "Third E" method of instruction.


An Insider's Look at Tai Chi Instruction

As you may know, while putting our Tai Chi and Qigong program together, we spent a lot of time "researching" and "testing". We sought out high quality Qigong/Tai Chi masters and senior instructors. We took the best of each of their approaches and began working with our students - finding out what was working. We gathered as much feedback as we could to make our program effective.

But beyond the actual Tai Chi methods themselves, we also looked at teaching methods - both historical approaches and contemporary teaching practices. We used our backgrounds in education (I'm a college-trained educator) to find the most effective methods of teaching. We researched modern theories in communication and general semantics. We also took courses in the most effective methods of presentation and promotion for this program.

As part of this research, we were able to classify the current methods of teaching Tai Chi into three general categories.

These three categories cover a majority of the Tai Chi instruction you'll find, whether it's in-person classes or in self-teaching methods such as books, videos, and online courses. Of course, these categories are generalizations, and sometimes instructors blend two or more of these approaches. But if we look at what method is used a majority of the time in a given class, book, or video, we find usually one primary method of instruction. Each of these methods has its pros and cons.

To make these easier to remember, we've given this categorization the name "The Three E's of Tai Chi Instruction." Each category name begins with the letter "E". Here is a brief run-down of these categories, with their pros and cons.


The "Exercise" Method

Teachers who use the "Exercise" method of instruction primarily teach Tai Chi as exercises to be learned and practiced.

Students are expected to learn and, with practice, be able to duplicate the movements shown to them. Student accomplishment is measured by the number of movements or sets (groups of movements) they can perform. We estimate that approximately 65% to 70% of tai chi programs - both in-person, by video, and online - from what we've observed fall into this category.

  • Pros: This is the most popular method, so it's the one most widely available. Good for people looking for a simple "dance" approach or just interested in the "cultural experience" of Tai Chi.

  • Cons: Results in health, stress relief, or Chi awareness take a long time - or may never come. Students often get a "false" sense of accomplishment by learning a large number of movements or sets. It is false in the sense that "more" in Tai Chi does not translate to "better," and sometimes in fact "more" may be a hindrance to real breakthroughs.


The "Explanation" Method

Teachers who use the "Explanation" method of instruction primarily teach Tai Chi as sets of principles to be explained, understood, and demonstrated.

Movements are taught, but students are expected to learn not just movements, but the principles behind the movements as the teacher explains them. Student accomplishment is measured by the number of principles they are able to either verbalize or demonstrate in their movements. We estimate that approximately 30% to 35% of classes, videos, and online courses we've observed fall into this category.

  • Pros: Better results than "exercise" method. Takes students beyond basic movement level of Tai Chi into some of what distinguishes it from other movement practices and exercises.

  • Cons: Being able to "verbalize" principles and/or "demonstrate" them in your movements does not mean that your internal experience is identical to someone else who also "verbalizes" and "demonstrates" the same principles. Hence, results in health, stress relief, and chi experiences may not be consistent from student to student. May give students a "false" sense of understanding. It's false in the sense that real Tai Chi breakthroughs, especially in Chi experiences, are related to increased internal awareness and sensitivity, not to verbalization or demonstration.


The "Experience" Method

Teachers who use the "Experience" method of instruction primarily teach Tai Chi as a series of "experiences" to go through and/or "experiments" to try.

Movements and principles may be taught, but students are expected to perform personal experiments to check the results - positive or negative - of these principles and movements. Student accomplishment is measured by their attempts at the experiences and their personal results.

Teachers of this method work to ensure that the students don't just outwardly mimic the teacher, but that the movements "feel" the same way to the students as they do to the teacher. We estimate that approximately 5% of the online courses, videos, and classe we've observed fall into this category.

  • Pros: The most effective method for gaining real benefits in health, stress relief, vitality, and Chi awareness. A whole level of Tai Chi beyond what most students experience. "So this is what it is supposed to feel like" is an often-heard comment.

  • Cons: Teachers, online courses, and videos using this method are extremely rare at this point. Expect to travel to find these teachers. (As a rule, don't expect to find classes in your city, much less your state or even your country.)

    You'll find that these instructors are often full-time professional Tai Chi instructors, or teachers trained by these full-time professionals. Full-time dedication and enthusiasm is needed to work not just on Tai Chi, but also on teaching and presentation skills. (However, being a full-time teacher does not guarantee that the teacher works on these skills. Some full time teachers still use the "Exercise" or "Explanation" methods.)

    Self-teaching material such as online courses and videos using this method are even more rare, because they are time-consuming and expensive to develop.


So That's Why That Experiment Was So Powerful!

As you can see, of all the teachers and courses we researched, we found that the Experience Method of Tai Chi instruction was the most rare, but also the most effective. As a result, we chose to organize our own courses, even our tai chi free lessons, using the Experience method.

And that is why so many people respond so positively to our first lesson. For many, that "experiment" is their "first taste" of the Experience Method of Instruction.

So now that you understand the Three "E's" of Tai Chi Instruction, you may also understand why just one simple, little practice in the very first lesson we teach you is so powerful.

You have my best wishes for health, well-being, and Chi Development,

Al Simon   Al's Signature



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