I'm often asked: How do I find a T'ai Chi teacher?
The answer is not a simple one. I recently found myself responding somewhat flippantly by saying something like: "There are many mysteries in T'ai Chi and the first one is how to find a teacher." Unfortunately, this is often true. In my case, I studied with two teachers for six years (total) from whom I did not learn much; although what I learned was valuable and enticing I knew there must be more. They both knew a lot, but did not teach - pretty much on purpose. This was in San Francisco in the '70's and there were two classes of teachers - older Chinese who 'knew something' and hippies who thought they knew, but really knew very few of the details.
There are at least two factors about T'ai Chi which would set up a circumstance such as the situation I describe above.
The first is that much of what goes on in T'ai Chi is internal, it is called an internal martial art for good reason. The external movement, unless you already know much, is deceiving because all the activity is hidden inside the body. My favorite example is that when people watch T'ai Chi, they think the arms are moving.
Generally, however, the arms aren't moving (though they look like they are) because what is really happening is that the body is moving the arms. This phenomenon of moving the arms by the body does cause the arms to move through space, but only as a fairly solid appendage to the body and not separately from the body the way we generally move our arms in everyday life, i.e., independently from the body. This is one of the factors that accounts for the power that a T'ai Chi player is able to generate. And one of the beautiful things about T'ai Chi is the richness of the internal activity, both for health and martial arts. Just in terms of enjoyment, there is a symphony of sensation moving through your body when you do the T'ai Chi Form which is incredible, and in which literally hundreds of components all add together to create something greater than each part alone; similar to someone playing a musical instrument. Only in T'ai Chi, the instrument is your own body--your nervous system (motor, sensory and autonomic), muscular system, balance, breath, stretch, relaxation, attention and much, much more. So... the job of the teacher is to convey this training, level upon level as the student is able to grasp and implement the information and integrate the skills into their own body.
The second factor is that in the Orient much of this knowledge is rightly considered valuable and traditionally has been hidden. So there is a tradition of not speaking plainly about what is going on inside the body and actually withholding instruction. How you achieved becoming instructed traditionally was complex and usually involved "proving yourself" and forming a close personal relationship with your teacher, earning his trust and good will until he was willing to show you what was really going on inside the body. You can look on it as an inner circle and an outer circle--the inner circle is like family where instruction is given eagerly and the outer circle is where more "outside" knowledge is transmitted without much explanation. In the first six years of my T'ai Chi training, I was in the outer circle knowing there was more. I finally found a teacher who knew the art and was willing to teach me the inner circle and to whom I am eternally grateful. So in the '70's my experience was finding teachers who knew but wouldn't teach and those who had received external instruction and thought they knew but really didn't know much.
Things are different now. You have a number of westerners who have received good instruction on the internal aspects of T'ai Chi and are willing to teach. There are more Orientals with good training who are willing to teach the internal aspects. There is no rating system for T'ai Chi teachers, though, such as the black belt system. The art is also immense, with many aspects and many styles which emphasize different aspects of the art. There are commonalties between the styles, but also different emphases so going between one style and another can be confusing (at least in the beginning of your training).
What you want in the beginning of your training is to build a good foundation in T'ai Chi, to learn the fundamentals well. Then you can sample differences and integrate them into your foundation as a refinement, but the basics have been learned.
So you want a teacher with good knowledge, who has received good instruction. Ask them about their training. Ask them what they have learned. Ask them about what goes on inside the Form. They should know push hands--have them push you so you can feel if they have some power. Ask if you can push them so you can feel if they know how to neutralize a push. Giving and receiving pushes should be gentle but something unique and powerful should be happening. Ask about Chi Gung and what their experience is with Chi Gung. Chi Gung is the art of breathing which has been incorporated into T'ai Chi and is one of the major transformational aspects of the art and one of the most important aspects for improving and maintaining health. Breath-work is often not incorporate d into the Form in the beginning of training, but you want an instructor who has knowledge of it. The Breath is ultimately the heart of T'ai Chi and you will want to know how to integrate Chi Gung breathing into your T'ai Chi. Obviously, if you are in a rural area it may be difficult to find a very experienced instructor and you will study with whoever is available. But you should keep in mind that there are very high levels of instruction available in the United States and around the world today and ultimately you want to partake of this instruction as your abilities grow. There are many fine workshops given throughout the year in many areas of the US-there are regular listings in T'ai Chi Magazine (Wayfarer Publications, 2601 Silver Ridge Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90039) - to which you can fly and receive great instruction. You do however want to find an instructor to learn from on a weekly basis in your area.
Once you Find an Instructor
In my experience, there are three levels of instruction - teaching, coaching and training. All are valuable but I think you need all three to learn good T'ai Chi.
Teaching is where things are explained to a whole class at a time, and each person goes off alone or works with others (in the case of push-hands) to incorporate the instructions into their form, their bodies, the art.
Coaching is where the instructor works with you specifically and says something like "Go home and practice this week, this is what you are trying to do, this is how it will feel, and come back and show me what you learned and tell me how it felt."
Training is where the instructor is with you and says something like: "This is what is going on here, try it...What does it feel like? No, try this...... Look for this feeling.........Try it again......That is closer...... That's right......Now go home and practice and we will build on it next week."
When I teach, it is individual instruction in a group setting. There is some general instruction, but I get around to every person in every class to take them to the next step in their training. Each person hears differently, has a different body and needs to be dealt with individually as they learn. Obviously, my classes are small -not usually over 6 people. The classes are 3 hours long and we work on stretching, fundamental training exercises, Form instruction, meditation, and push-hands from the beginning. Many teachers will traditionally wait to teach push-hands until after somebody learns the form, but I have been getting good results with my students by starting them with push-hands in the beginning. This is not the only way to teach, but this is the way I was trained and the way I prefer to teach right now - I really want somebody to learn good quality T'ai Chi and I think the training aspect is essential. In a lot of schools which are larger, people learn as a group with junior instructors until they gain enough fundamental knowledge to benefit from individual work with the founder of the school. I could see how this would work well too.
One more thing occurs to me as important. And that is the personality of the instructor. The transmission of T'ai Chi is from teacher to student and is a fairly intimate activity. It is like raising a child or being raised by a parent. You need your own boundaries as a person and you need to distinguish what is T'ai Chi and what is the personality of the teacher--in the transmission of T'ai Chi they often get mixed together (this is one reason for the different T'ai Chi styles). So it is important that you are able to accept the personality of the teacher, even though you might not see the world in the same way as he does. You will be absorbing their influence so it is important to pay attention to who they are as people and keep distinguishing them as separate from the art they teach or the philosophy they espouse. There may be some personalities from which you will choose not to learn.
As I write this, it occurs to me that all this seems like a lot to take on. And it is a lot to take on. It is really worth it though. T'ai Chi is incredibly rich, magical, healthy, powerful and fulfilling. I look on it as one of God's gifts to the planet, without it being in existence we would be much poorer. To me it is like the medicinal plants in the rain forest - full of hidden treasure and value from which we can learn so much to enrich our lives and health.