By Paul Fretter.
To quote Wee Kee Jin’s teacher, Huang Sheng Shyan: “Everyone is a beginner once. Always consider yourself a student and never a master“.
Do I need any special clothing or equipment to begin Taiji?
No, Taiji is a very low-cost activity; just arrive in loose and comfortable clothing. Training in bare feet is best, but if shoes are to be worn they should be flat/level soled if possible, and of course, be thoroughly clean and free of dirt or debris before stepping on the practice floor.
How long does it take to learn Taiji?
How long is a piece of string? Taiji is a continuous process of refinement and development, so there is no end to learning, and how quickly you progress is highly individual, depending on your own personal circumstances and what you want to get out of it. Part of the enjoyment of Taiji is the process of learning and discovery, rather than achieving a specific final goal. If I were to offer a rough guide, and you attended 1-2 classes per week, then you might learn how to perform the entire sequence of the Short Form within 12-24 months. There is plenty of solo and partner practice material in the syllabus to be learned alongside and beyond this, and their in-depth refinement and cultivation can be a lifetime’s work.
Is Taiji easy to learn?
Like anything of worth, it takes effort and commitment over a sustained period of time to learn and develop it properly, but beginner’s classes will introduce things gradually and you will be able to learn at your own pace under the guidance of your instructor. Progress can only be at your own pace and it is better to remain patient and build your skill and understanding gradually.
Will Taiji help me to relax?
Taiji is well known as a means of developing relaxation, and so the answer is a qualified “yes”, however it is necessary to be clear about what is meant by relaxation. In Taiji, relaxation is an active process of continually letting go of the excess muscular tension in the body, and it is not to be slack and floppy. Excess tension is anything over and above that which is strictly necessary to maintain posture and perform movement and it soon becomes clear that we carry far more tension than we were aware of. It is almost paradoxical that developing relaxation is actually hard work!
Is Taiji safe to learn if I have health problems?
In the vast majority of cases, yes, and it is recognised that Taiji is a safe form of exercise. The NHS has published advice regarding Taiji here: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/guide-to-tai-chi/
Can I learn Taiji from a video?
My personal view is that it is not easy to do so as a beginner. When beginning Taiji it is better to join a club or practice group with an instructor and learn there. Videos can certainly be helpful, but they are best used as a supplement to class-based learning, and cannot replace the face-to-face adjustment from an instructor, or the practice with other students. However, learning from a video is better than nothing at all, but I advise you should also make an effort to attend workshops run by a knowledgeable instructor, even if it means you have to travel.
Do I have to take part in partner training?
It’s not essential, but it depends on what benefit you want to get from your practice. Studying some of the principles in partner practice will greatly aid your understanding of, and consequent benefit from, the practice of the Taiji forms. Partner training is also a lot of fun.
How much of my own practice should I do outside of the class?
As a beginner, it’s a good idea to go through what you have been learning a few times during the week, even if it’s only for a few minutes a day, as this will better prepare you for the following classes. Don’t worry if you make mistakes or can’t remember something, as this is a completely normal part of learning and any effort you make to at least try will be helpful to you. I would also advise that you build up your training time gradually so that you don’t overwhelm yourself in the early days.
Do I have to learn the martial art aspects?
No, only if you have a particular interest in it. However, a study of the martial application will significantly deepen your understanding and practice of the non-martial aspects. This is because Taiji is fundamentally designed to be a functional martial art and your ability to demonstrate the effectiveness of aspects of the system will indicate your current level of understanding, or not.
Are all Taiji systems and schools the same? Are there recognised standards?
There are a number of different Taiji styles, and many systems within them, but they are all based on the same fundamental principles. However their expression and the understanding of the teachers/instructors will vary considerably, and there are no ubiquitous ‘standards’, such as you might otherwise find in gymnastics or other standardised disciplines.
Are there belts or gradings in Taiji?
Not in our system, but some other systems do have them. The Japanese were the first to introduce gradings and belts in Judo, after which it was then popularised in Karate, followed by other martial arts from China, and Korea. This approach has a number of benefits as it provides a structured path for learning, but conversely if applied inappropriately it can become a ladder for the ego to climb.
Can I learn two different Taiji systems at the same time?
As a beginner, I would not recommend it because it will cause you a lot of confusion as well as make it difficult for either instructor to teach you. An analogy could be if you were to begin both French and Spanish language classes at the same time, you would get confused because, although they are based on similar roots, their expression is different. Once you have gained a thorough grounding in one system, over several years, then you will have a foundation and stand a better chance of taking up a second practice with a reduced risk of confusion. You will then hopefully have enough experience to allow it to inform your knowledge without substituting or corrupting either. Personally, I prefer to stick to one Taiji system.
Is Taiji mystical or religious?
No, Taiji has absolutely nothing to do with religion or mysticism. There are some people who try to make Taiji mystical, but really this does nothing to help to learn Taiji and actually will hold back your development, so I would advise you to steer clear of this kind of mixing. Keep it real!
What is “Chi”?
A literal translation would be “breath”. Used in other contexts it is just a concept, or a metaphor, used to describe a flow of something abstract such as a perceived sensation. Again, keeping it real, “chi” is definitely not some kind of mysterious energy that science has yet to discover! In my own classes, I avoid using this word because of the unhelpful ‘mystical’ connotations that people might associate with it. Also, it’s worth mentioning that the “chi” part of the phrase “Tai chi” is a completely different word.
What are Yin and Yang?
Again, this is something else to which some people mistakenly apply a mystical meaning. The terms Yin and Yang are used simply to refer to two things which are opposite but have a relationship with one another, like the two sides of the same coin.
Do I need to learn any Chinese languages or dialects?
No, this is not necessary unless you plan to learn from someone who only teaches in the Chinese language!
Paul Fretter. Norwich, UK