Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Smart learning: Practicing is not the only key to learning Tai Chi

Many of my students have commented that learning to do Tai Chi correctly is not an easy task. Some of them have learned simplified form from other teachers found difficult learning the detailed traditional 85 forms. By simply repeating what the teacher has shown you, you are not improving your skills to their fullest potential. How can we really learn form and improve our Tai Chi skills? Here are some suggestions that you could benefit from. 

Set an approachable goal
When some beginners first come to our studio, they use the instructor’s performance and other intermediate students’ performance as a model. They feel that they will perform at this level within a month or two. This seems like a reasonable goal, but looks can be deceiving!  Of course, the form of the instructor and other intermediate students required years of practice and learning.

As a beginner, your goal is not to be able to have the same form and moves as the instructor. Rather, I recommend that you learn the first few moves and do them well. Only with an approachable goal will you conquer the fear of learning and ease the pressure of not learning enough movements so that you may move forward. 

Remember, learning every skill takes effort. It may take a short time to learn some skills; for others it may take longer. Your own ability and the method used by the instructor are two important factors in determining how long it will you take to learn your form. 

The correct way
While some students don’t practice often and others practice quite a bit, the ones who practice often don’t always seem to improve their form significantly. Why is this the case?  You might think that those who practice more should have better form and more advanced skills. However, the fact is this is not true.

We know that if you want to remember something, it needs to enter your long-term memory. In order for this to happen, you first need to enter the movements in your short-term memory. Naturally, this requires practice. This is common knowledge. This logic is sound if you are doing the right movements. If your movements are not correct, then you are repeating the wrong movements and you are entering the wrong information into your short and long-term memories, thus not spending your time wisely. 

That’s why when my father was teaching private students, he didn’t want someone to go to the next step if the current move had not been mastered. In a large class, when a teacher can’t correct every detail of every student’s movements, the best approach is to try to just learn one or two movements at a time and to learn them correctly. Ask questions or just ask teacher to come correct you in person. For this reason many students also book private lessons to master some movements. 

Part vs. Whole
As I often mention in class, everyone focuses on different aspects of the instructor’s teaching. It’s like the story of “the blind men and an elephant,” in which every one thinks the part they touch is the shape of the whole elephant.  Essentially, everyone’s focus and take-aways from class are different. Most beginners will pay more attention to the instructor’s hand movements instead of body movements. However, as I often say, “Tai Chi is a whole body exercise. We want to concentrate on whole body movements instead of partial body movements.” 

Visual Vs.  Real
As I mentioned above, even students who pay attention and try to concentrate on the whole body movements might not be repeating the movements correctly. As Tai Chi is considered an internal martial art, what you appear to be may not be what is happening in reality. In Karate, an external martial art, a hand block and punch is a hand block and punch. In Tai Chi, it can be a twist of the whole body linked to your arm which rotates to form a block. Pay attention to your instructor's movements and ask questions to figure out how to make this special move. 

Steps determine the success of your learning. If you made the wrong first step, the second step could be wrong as well. For example, in Tai Chi if you haven’t transferred weight to one leg, then you can’t lift the other leg. Making sure you have the right sequence will make your Tai Chi smooth. 

Finally, let’s return to the topic of repetition. If we take all the suggestions above into consideration, we can now talk about repetition. Practice makes perfect! That’s why I always tell my students at end of the class, “Please go home and practice!”

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