We are a full two weeks into a robust fall session at the school. I’m really enjoying being back into my routine – meeting many new folks and reconnecting with our devoted ongoing student population, many of whom have been with their practice and the school for well over ten years. Our youngest student on the floor this session is 21, our eldest, well, why bother with that number! What a privilege to practice together! I feel quite grounded and settled after two years of strong changes in my life and career and am happy the risks I took during this time appear to have been the correct ones.
When I was sweating it out on my recent training trip in China last month, along with absorbing and learning, I thought a great deal about how I wanted to teach when I started up again this month. As with all long-standing careers, I have explored and experimented with different ideas for conveying the material in my charge. I’m the proudest that over the years I have, with the help of my students and teachers, developed skill to be able to give most people, regardless of age, health or fitness something useful, whether they stay on the floor for a day or decades. Yet I always feel I could do better, be clearer in my demonstrations and explanations.
Each time I work with my teacher Chen Xiao Xing I of course practice hard but I also study how he teaches. He also has a wide range of students, different ages, genders, nationalities, interests. No matter who he teaches, no matter what floor he is on, he teaches exactly the same. Naturally he addresses variations in fitness, but the method of imparting the information is always the same. Demonstrate, succinctly explain and clarify the logic, correct with hands on, let the student find it for themselves. Correct, and repeat. Over and over again. I thought, really, this is it, there is only one way to teach Tai Chi & Qigong: without flourish, without interpretation, without trying to find metaphors or ways of explaining things so hopefully people will “get it,” the only real way to teach is to simply teach the method.
As with teaching, when we practice, it is also the same. We need to simply find and do our best to replicate what we are taught. As students, though the method is clear: relax, sit the hips, concentrate on the center of gravity, keep upright posture, and so on, we often spend a lot of time looking around for alternatives. We keep trying different things to find the way into to our art, some other exercise, some other way of looking at it, when the way in is right in front of us. All we have to do is follow what has been set out by many generations in front of us. Why is this so hard?
I think perhaps because the rules not only teach us our art but as we attempt to find and follow them, we encounter ourselves. We find we are often far, far away from the instruction. We have poor posture, our muscles are weak, our hips our tight. We are not relaxed. So rather than simply be with that experience and continue to practice what we are taught until something changes, we try to find another experience that will assuage these uncomfortable truths. It’s a cat and mouse game for sure! And yet, finally we must accept, return to and keep focused on the method as we encounter it, part by part, moment by moment, over and over again. The truth is there is no easy way. And there is no hard way either. There is simply the way.
My practice this evening was really focused on the rule of relaxation. Even to the exclusion of “doing” “perfect” technique, I kept looking to let go of tension, especially in my shoulders, over and over again. As I finished my practice I stayed in the garden and pulled some weeds. The autumn evening sun felt warm and comforting on my body. I saw the sun’s rays long on the orange leaves. I definitely felt more at ease in my body and being. I thought about my practice and recognized I am not just practicing so that I might improve my Tai Chi, but by simply following the method, I vastly improve my overall quality of life. It’s a tremendous gift that those who came before us left. We have a map to follow. One that is set up clearly for centuries, tried and proven by our teachers and ancestors. All we have to do is follow it, stay focused on it. Our Tai Chi skill, and our life reap tremendous rewards.