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More Learning Tai Chi
further observations and conversations on learning tai chi

Instructor or Teacher


The detailed relationship of every movement and position of the hand is as important as any other aspect of Tai Chi practice, i.e. manoeuvring the legs, feet, hips, body and head, etc. The cleverly organised hand forms have an intrinsic relationship with the bodily patterns, positions and configurations. Every turn of the hand and wrist will effect the muscular activity of the entire arm, as well as the structure of the whole body. Therefore the hands must function intelligently with conscious form, becoming an integrated element in the composite movement. When you move correctly and freely in the Tai Chi Form, your inner energy will be projected outward through the very tips of the fingers.

Ordinarily when the shoulders and arms are relaxed and hang vertically down by your side the palms turn inward toward the body. It can be noted that the palms are curved and the fingers relaxed. The Tai Chi hand, however, is not as this natural gravitational relaxed hand. Conscious effort is used to straighten the fingers slightly, which in turn lengthens the palm. With the fingers separated slightly from each other this adds natural tenseness of the muscles and tendons. This kind of tension is an "intrinsic matter" because of the extra effort needed to separate the fingers. The hand is now in "neutral". Hands should never be permitted to relax completely, they are not decorations attached to the arms. A Tai Chi hand is alert and ready for action (having energy of its own) . A hand with the fingers consciously held tight together gestures stiffness in the palm and knuckles. This is "extrinsic tension".

An aspect that reflects the degree of energy used depends upon the force of gravity. When an arm is held vertically downward or is moving downward (no matter what the hand is doing) then the energy exerted intrinsically is less than when an arm is horizontal or moving upward.

Hands may be put into a category as having yin, yang or neutral energy. The movement and position of the arm / hand determine the energy value.

The labels "Instructor", "Teacher" and "Master" are given to Black Belts by students, by associations and sometimes by themselves. There is a difference between these labels. They are not the same.

Who are we talking about when we speak of an instructor, teacher or master. Surely we mean the leader of our class, club or association; the person whom we respect for their superior knowledge and experience. Most of all they are the person responsible for our education within the art. Of course there are Black Belts that don't see it as their duty to perform this vital function, but we still consider them as instructors since convention tells us that all Black Belts are instructors. In fact some Black Belts are instructors, some are teachers and some are just plain Black Belts.

Let us look at the meanings of the words themselves. An instructor instructs, that is he tells you what to do. He imparts absolute knowledge by repetition and rarely offers an explanation, there is no need to. You can just learn by copying and doing what you are told. This is an effective technique and has indeed turned out numerous "carbon-copy" Black Belts, perfect in technique and ready to go forth and instruct.

A teacher on the other hand teaches. He explains techniques, invites questions and fosters explanation. Students learn by experience of wrong as well as right and they develop into rounded and individual martial art practitioners. They copy but they examine what they have copied in terms of its effectiveness and individual appropriateness. A teacher is the real educator - and a student, or another teacher, can always learn from them.

The current theory for mainstream school education favours just this kind of teaching. This may also be known as "discovery learning". The fact is that students in any discipline learn better if they feel in control of their own learning. They learn and develop understanding by experimenting and making mistakes. They may well learn sometimes by repeating it until they have it memorised but they will not develop an understanding of it. The role of the teacher then is as a knowledgeable guide providing an environment where students can develop their understanding.

You may ask how we can become Teachers in the martial art situation. This is no different from any other classroom, just like a school teacher we have a basic syllabus to teach and we have overall goals (in our case perhaps competition, fitness and self-defence). So we can demonstrate and explain elements of the basic syllabus, explain their wider applications and then allow the students to explore the techniques in different situations to see if they can really make them work. After all that is the aim of martial art teaching, isn't it. If it doesn't work for them, help them to understand why not and to help them to modify their approach to compensate. Above all accept that someone may do the technique differently (and perhaps even more effectively) than yourself. Learn from their interpretation and don't be afraid to say so. You see, an instructor believes that he is always right and his way is the only way. A teacher on the other hand understands that he does not know everything and is proud of his students' individuality, and rightly so.

To give an example of self-defence lets take a student that has been instructed in a single technique for the defence against a roundhouse kick. He will know where to stand, how to move, and how to execute and finish the technique. He has practised this technique for two hours in the training session and can do it perfectly. What's more it looks good too! Another student has been taught how to defend from a roundhouse kick. He has explored the attack during an hour session and has been shown various defences that he has investigated in different positions and with different size and shape partners. He has frequently asked questions and made several mistakes, but he understands the situation. If both of these students are subsequently attacked by a roundhouse kick, which student would be able to deal more effectively with the assailant? Well the first student would definitely finish the technique as long as everything works out as planned in the training session. The second student would also finish the technique, but perhaps not so prettily. But what if something goes wrong. The first student would not know what to do if things don't go to plan, whereas the second student would be use to improvising and building from their mistakes. Ask yourself the questions:- who has more chance?, and who is the better martial artist?

When it comes down to it, it is your choice whether you prefer to be an all-powerful, all-knowledgeable instructor commanding respect, or a guiding knowledgeable teacher winning respect. If you currently instruct and you want to teach it won't happen overnight. You have to be committed to the way of imparting knowledge and your students have to be slowly introduced to the concept of thinking for themselves. If an instructor becomes a teacher then there is no reason why the style and philosophy of the club cannot remain the same. It is the teaching process that has changed.


Who are we talking about when we speak of an instructor, teacher or master. Surely we mean the leader of our class, club or association; the person whom we respect for their superior knowledge and experience. Most of all they are the person responsible for our education within the art.
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