Taijiquan, or tai-chi ch’uan (both are properly pronounced “tie jee chwun”), has increased in popularity to the point that it is now being taught in one form or another at community centers, churches, schools and colleges virtually everywhere. In spite of this proliferation there is surprisingly little factual information readily available to assist individuals in making informed decisions when choosing a teacher or attempting to determine which styles of taijiquan are legitimate.
The single most important consideration in learning taiji is to learn it correctly. This is particularly important when just starting out.
Acquiring the skill to truly understand taiji and teach it well requires a significant investment of time, correct practice and experience.
Selecting a teacher based on a low fee for instruction or convenient location may seem like a good idea, but there is no guarantee that the quality of instruction will meet accepted standards. A better approach would be to visit as many taiji classes as you can and make an informed decision based on several criteria.
Here are a few important considerations.
What to look for in a teacher
How long has the teacher been practicing?
A definitive answer as to how long a person should have studied before teaching on their own is difficult to give. Chinese experts would suggest a minimum of ten years, and this of course presumes that the person was taught correctly in the first place. A few months or a year or two of study simply is not sufficient time to have absorbed anything of real substance. No one can teach you something they have not learned themselves.
From whom did the teacher learn?
Did he or she learn from an experienced expert teacher or from a novice? It doesn’t matter that the teacher’s teacher’s teacher learned from master so and so. When inquiring about a teacher’s credentials try to focus on his or her experience and knowledge.
What aspects of taijiquan does the person teach?
Each style of taijiquan is a complete system consisting of exercises, basic training, forms, two person drills (called “push hands”), self-defense applications and weapons forms (straight sword and saber). An experienced teacher will know and be able to teach all of these components. Do you need to learn all of these aspects to receive the many physical and mental benefits that taiji provides? The short answer is no. Correctly learning the basic form alone will give many benefits. At higher levels there is more to taijiquan than the basic movement sequence. These additional components will contribute to one's continuing development, both physically and mentally.
What teaching methods are employed?
A competent teacher will of course demonstrate the movements, but he or she will also spend considerable time clearly explaining in terms you can understand exactly how and why a thing is done a certain way. If explanation seems vague, mystical or lacking altogether, you can’t learn anything. Forget those wonderfully poetic posture names (i.e., "White crane spreads its wings"); each movement must reflect scientifically correct body attitudes and practical self-defense application.
Are there different kinds of taijiquan?
There are five main styles of taijiquan – Chen, Yang, Wu, Hao and Sun
There are many variations of each of these, including the long traditional forms and many different shorter forms.
Chen is a vigorous style featuring low stances and both slow and very fast movements.
Yang is a commonly seen style with numerous variations. Upright, comfortable postures make it suitable for anyone.
Wu focuses on exercising the back and torso and is an excellent style for the joints and spine.
Hao has very upright compact movements, and is not commonly seen.
Sun combines taijiquan with xingyiquan and baguazhang, two other Chinese martial arts; it is a relatively rare style.
Isn’t it important to study with a master?
Keep in mind that associating the title “master” with a system or teacher has a way of conferring an air of legitimacy, whether deserved or not. What really matters is how long the teacher has practiced correctly and how well he or she can employ and teach the principles that define the art. Note that in China, masters are few and far between, while in the West, “masters” are everywhere!
How much should you pay?
Like most things in life, you will most likely get what you pay for. If you really wish to learn taiji correctly, it is probably unreasonable to think that you will get it for next to nothing. The amateur teaching as a hobby can charge less than a professional who makes a living offering on-going instruction. The professional will have invested many years studying with skilled experts and will naturally ask a higher fee for instruction. In return, the student benefits from the professional’s extensive training and teaching experience.