A. There are three main styles found across the world: Yang, Chen and Wu. Within each of these is a multitude of variations and nuances that are not of significant importance for the beginner student. In fact I’m not convinced that they are that important for the teachers either. As Mao said: "Let a Hundred flowers bloom". Were we to encourage this approach in Tai Chi, we would see an even greater diversity of styles that would perhaps address the needs of all those who tread the floors of training halls around the world.
But the world is not always as we would like it to be, and in the world of Tai Chi certain names or schools dominate the practice and the public image of the art. Some styles are seen as more traditional and pure, others as more recent with unproven modifications. Others still are considered outdated and increasingly antiquated.
Although you may think that selecting the right school is paramount, most styles share more in common than their practitioners would probably care to admit. Rather than fixate on names and categories, it would be better to remember that it is the teacher and the ambience of a class that will determine much of a student's progress, rather than simply a name or a possibly dubious historical time-line.
Every teacher will place a different emphasis on some aspects of a Form over others, and in time these will ultimately distinguish their style from those of others. This is the nature of teaching and it is part of Tai Chi’s rich legacy and development over the centuries. Some may deny this, others may embrace it. But rest assured you will always find in a class the fundamentals of the Form: pushing-hands, rooting, breathing, Chi Gung exercises, sticking and yielding.
A. The Chen style, from which all others are said to have derived, still incorporates both fast and slow movements, as well as explosive and soft techniques. Other styles have leveled out these variations and tend to offer a more uniform pace in their Forms and practice. The official modified Chinese Form, and the original Yang Style have a much more regular flow and incorporate lower postures and angular stances.
Other styles such as Wudan and Wu still teach much of the martial side, while the popular Cheng Man Ching Form on the other hand tends to balance the martial with other softer aspects. This is notable in the Form's upright stances, softer moves and consistent flow with an emphasis on circularity. Fundamentally, the styles have come to reflect their teachers. Cheng Man Ching was called the master of the Five Excellencies as he was also a physician, painter, calligrapher and poet. It was perhaps his interest in other disciplines that contributed to his particular slant on the Form and practice of Tai Chi. I remember several teachers of mine that stressed the importance of knowing the acupuncture channels in the body. These people were trained acupuncturists or shiatsu practitioners and to them it made sense. Other teachers have trained in other martial arts and have stressed the applications of the postures.
Ask your teacher about their interests and you will often find why the Tai Chi school is the way it is.
A. What sort of person are you? What are you looking for in a class? How best do you learn? Although we talk a lot about styles in Tai Chi, ultimately we do not, as individuals, fit neatly into pigeonholes.
Therefore in order to answer this question, you need to ask yourself: Are you someone who is practicing another martial art and wishes to complement it with something more internal? Do you seek a method of meditation, or techniques for relaxation? Are you looking to build-up your immune system, or your muscles?
Whatever your answers to these questions, I always recommend that new students sit in on a class and just watch before deciding if it is right for them. Of course, all students can try out a class, but sometimes sitting to one side and observing gives an insight unattainable to the eager participant.
Through the act of watching you can see how the teacher interacts with the students, how well they follow his or her instructions, and you can absorb a little of the ambience of the class. If you are participating, this is difficult to achieve whilst intent on trying to copy the moves and postures of a new style.
After talking with the teacher, take some time to talk to the other students. Ask them how they feel about their progress and how they feel about the class. It has been said that the best example of a teacher's skill is the level of proficiency attained by the students, their attitude and openness to newcomers and their enthusiasm for practice. Try to see a little of this in each class you visit. (More details on what to expect in a class and how best to learn are presented in Ways Of Learning)
If you want to get an idea of how the styles vary stylistically, do a search on YouTube for the principal styles and you will see many examples of the different schools. This may also help when you finally find the name of a school that you hope to visit.
A. Many people ask me about my teachers, and whether they were Chinese or British (like myself). The truth is, I have had teachers from many different countries and I can only respond by saying that nationality by itself does not convey good teaching skills.
Well, perhaps I should say that what is important is that you learn from someone who knows how to teach; someone who knows how to transmit ideas, concepts and actions and is a competent practitioner. It would be an error to select your teacher on grounds of race alone, although some people do think that it will give them a more authentic experience if they are taught by a Chinese practitioner. Authenticity, however, is not merely a matter of lineage, names or race. Authenticity is about how someone can relate, communicate and pass on experience, knowledge and skills.
In my personal experience, I have learnt from both Orientals and Occidentals. The only rule is to find someone with whom you can communicate. I learnt Tai Chi Sword from a Chinese teacher who used an interpreter in all his classes. This served to stifle somewhat the relationship between the teacher and the students, and made for very short answers to complex questions. Later I learnt from another teacher from Hong Kong who insisted on showing us a posture once or twice and who would then stand back and simply say "Do Again” every time we asked for clarification. It wasn't a helpful learning experience. Other teachers have had poor verbal skills but an energy and enthusiasm to impart knowledge that has more than compensated for the language limits. Each must be taken on their own merits.
Westerners do have a tradition of asking for details when learning new skills. They have a curiosity for information that is at times insatiable, and which is clearly part of our make-up. Perhaps this is not a bad thing, for in the long term this will benefit the spread and practice of the art.
Of course you cannot generalise from these examples regarding race, but the point remains an important one: Learn from someone with whom you can communicate. Communication may consist of non-verbal as well as verbal messages, but it has to be a valuable and satisfying experience for you.
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