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Tips for Selecting a Tai Chi Class

by Peter Anthony Gryffin, PhD, January 14, 2019

To learn or practice tai chi for health, teaching ability can make more difference than the years of experience a teacher has in tai chi. This was also something hard for me to admit as a longtime practitioner. There are many traditionalists with a more martial orientation who may have incredible skill in tai chi but little patience as teachers. One of the largest barriers to learning tai chi identified in a survey of major programs in the United States was lack of patience on the part of the instructor.

An experienced teacher with a focus on tai chi for health often knows what to look for to enhance benefits for each person, and may be more proficient at adapting to student needs, while always keeping in mind the advice of your doctor. Also some teachers, having learned in the old school master/disciple format, may be so invested in the way they were taught that any adaptation is impossible. In the traditional format, it can take years before one can perform the full tai chi form.

A Life of Work Left Me in Pain. Until Tai Chi
"I used to work at a dry cleaner, ironing clothing all day long. Because of my job, I had developed arthritis in my hands. My fingers were swollen and in pain much of the time. After taking up tai chi, my fingers are no longer swollen or in pain, and I can move them without any problem. I now find myself doing house chores for a long period of time with ease, moving things around, picking them up, bending down and reaching up. I used to have to be careful about pushing myself because I would get muscle aches and headaches. But now I get a deeper than usual night's sleep, which feels really good. Also, recently my doctor said my bone density had increased by about 20 percent from three years ago. He was very surprised."
—Lun (From "Testimonials," Tai Chi Chuan Center website)

Due to variations in teaching styles, as well as in styles of tai chi and qigong, it is recommended that you check out all of the classes in your area to get an idea of what is available. Sometimes convenience is key. On the other hand, finding a group that you identify with may be more important. Find out what forms of qigong and tai chi are practiced, and then do some research on the Internet if no other resources are available. Talk with the students if you can and find out what benefits they feel they are getting. You may also wish to ask the teacher how long it takes to learn the form. A three-month to two-year learning curve is typical, but there may be auxiliary exercises or segments you can practice at home. This is why I developed the resources at Metarobics.org, to allow immediate practice of tai chi and the eight treasures exercise. If you can try out a few classes, this might allow you to find out if the instructor has the qualities that will enhance your learning.

In a national survey of tai chi programs, being patient and adaptable were two of the most important attributes students identified for a tai chi teacher, even more so than knowledge of tai chi. If you are looking primarily to improve your health, check to see whether the school stresses the health or martial aspects. Surprisingly, a large number of instructors still teach tai chi from a martial perspective. This is valuable for those interested in the martial arts, as well as to preserve the complete art, but can sometimes be a barrier to practicing tai chi for health.
One school I observed had students, even the older ones, who were in their seventies, smash their shoulders against each other to practice a technique called shoulder stroke. Another example is Chen-style tai chi. In parts of the form, one raises the leg and then stomps the foot with great impact onto the ground. This may help develop skills for throwing an opponent, but its use is questionable regarding the health of the knee. Some schools practice a two-person exercise called pushing hands, which can have some specific benefits for enhancing relaxation, but can also involve throws.

Tai Chi Pushing Hands

Gentle forms of push hands can be a good exercise for learning how to release tension in the body. People may not realize how much muscle tension they actually have until they practice the push hands exercise with a more relaxed and experienced tai chi practitioner. Doing push hands exercises with a more experienced practitioner can help you to feel and better understand the tension in your body. But push hands exercises can also be taken to more extreme forms, which can include joint locks and throws. So watch a class or two, talk to the students, and check out as many classes as you can. Usually students are eager to share their experiences on the benefits they have received, and this may be your best clue as to the effectiveness of the class for health.

Most tai chi and qigong teachers are willing to accommodate the needs of their students, particularly if the student is respectful. As research on tai chi and methods of teaching user-friendly classes become more established, it will become easier to find classes and resources for tai chi and qigong for health.

Being a master practitioner does not necessarily mean being a master teacher. Indeed, often those who have struggled the most in learning the form are the best teachers, due to the patience and focus necessary to overcome difficulties. Teachers who would like to enhance their teaching skills are encouraged to read Dr. Paul Lam's book Teaching Tai Chi Effectively, which is based on his more than thirty years of experience with tai chi and his experience teaching and training people to effectively lead classes for a variety of audiences.

Although qigong is usually taught in association with tai chi, a growing number of classes are focusing on forms of qigong. When looking for qigong classes, remember that qigong can also include a wide range of practices. There are some unusual forms of folk qigong that may be questionable in terms of their health benefits. In one park frequented by Chinese qigong practitioners, I saw a few older adults pressing the body against playground equipment. I asked about this practice and was told it was done to absorb youthful qi, or energy.

Negative Consequences

The mind is a powerful thing, and some have suggested that visualizing energy patterns in the body may actually affect the brain and nervous system. Sometimes this visualization can result in negative consequences. Some students have reported constipation or other intestinal disorders. On the other hand, many schools of tai chi and qigong report using various visualizations to relax or direct healing in the body with beneficial effects. There are also forms of martial or hard qigong, which can include practices with a focus on toughening the body—such as repeatedly striking the head with a heavy board. Practices can also involve striking the body with iron rods, or using reverse forms of breathing to toughen and pressurize the body, to make it impervious to blows. However, this can also raise blood pressure to dangerous levels. Although this might have enhanced some form of longevity in the days of hand-to-hand combat, in more modern times such exercises can be detrimental.

I know two tai chi practitioners who attributed severe health problems, including congestive heart failure, to the practice of reverse breathing during tai chi. Reverse breathing pressurizes the body to make it resistant to blows, but doing so through an entire tai chi or qigong form may raise blood pressure to dangerous levels. Research is needed to determine if even brief moments of reverse breathing have any benefit. From a theoretical perspective, holding the breath very briefly during some qigong poses may momentarily increase blood pressure, with possible beneficial effects for strengthening blood vessel walls, based on the concept that brief moments of mild stress result in a positive response, similar to the effect of weightlifting on muscles.

Reverse breathing, conducted within certain parameters, may have similar effects, but it will take an extensive body of research to determine the relationship between time, damage, and any possible benefits. As a whole, I advocate following the natural mechanisms of the body, as well as discussing your practice with your doctor and talking with students of a proposed school regarding the benefits or effects they have experienced. Abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing is a natural form that has been demonstrated as beneficial for health, as opposed to shallow upper-chest breathing. It is the reason we have a diaphragm stretching across the bottom of our rib cage. This muscle is specifically designed to maximize inhalation of the breath.

At Death's Door
"Before taking up tai chi, Master Jou Tsung Hwa developed a fondness for gambling. Combined with late hours at work, and playing hard afterwards, his abusive lifestyle resulted in an enlarged heart and prolapsed stomach by age forty-seven. After visiting several doctors, he became despondent. Jou was told that there was no hope for repair to his heart, and surgery would be of only minor benefit for his stomach. Then a friend who was a long time tai chi practitioner convinced Jou to try tai chi. Within two weeks he began to feel better, and three years later tests showed that his stomach had healed. His heart has also returned to normal size, and all damage seemed to have disappeared. After seeing the cure that tai chi had enacted after conventional Western medicine failed, Jou Tsung Hwa became a teacher of tai chi. At age eighty-one he was still in good health, more active than many half his age, when he died an early death, when his car was hit by on oncoming van."
—From "The Grandmaster," Taichifarm.org

Until research can separate myth from fact and health from harm, the general recommendation is to focus on the basic health benefits of abdominal breathing, coupled with relaxation and a gentle range of movement with good postural alignment, including the knees and feet. These basic principles underlie the most common practices and benefits of tai chi and qigong for health. It can also be helpful to talk with the instructor, other students, and your doctor if you have questions or doubts regarding any practice.

Research and experience will tell which qigong practices are beneficial and which are rooted in folklore, although it is important to keep in mind that some folk practices do have many health benefits. The West has gone through a similar evolution. There are many questionable "health" practices in Western lore and traditions, such as rubbing goose droppings on the head to cure baldness. It is doubtful that such a practice can actually cure baldness, but the folk practice of using leeches to draw blood has made a comeback in the medical community.

As time progresses, further research will help differentiate effective practices from folklore, but in the meantime, it is advisable for those interested in tai chi and qigong to become as knowledgeable as possible. Learn the intent of any exercise you are considering and the evidence-based rationale behind the benefits if known, and discuss your practice with a qualified doctor.

The above excert is from Mindful Exercise: Metarobics, Healing. And the Power of Tai Chi by Peter Anthony Gryffin, PhD. This book was published September 1, 2018 by YMAA Publication Center, Wolfebororo, New Hampshire.  ISBN: 9781594396175.



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