The Tai Chi Learning Spiral

In our tai chi classes (as, I would imagine, in many others), we don't talk about a learning curve: we talk about a learning spiral. I wanted to dedicate a blog post to discussing why that is, and what it has to do with beginning to walk on the tai chi path.


Many people who begin learning tai chi think that they are working toward a goal. In the beginning, it can feel that way: you want to learn the tai chi set, or perhaps you're working toward memorizing it. Maybe you want to feel more confident with the basic stepping. Or you're aiming to achieve the smoothness you've seen when other students practice.

As you train, your instructor might talk about a few different concepts: pushing from the feet; turning rather than performing lateral movements; moving the entire body as a single unit; staying relaxed at all times.

But you've got a goal to meet: you've got the tai chi set to learn. So you kind of hear what's being said, and you sort of take it in, or you think you're doing it.

Fast forward to a little while later. You pretty much know the set, and you can practice it on your own. Now what? One day, your instructor tells you to push from your back foot and gives you a little resistance as you move forward. If you want her to get out of your way, you're going to have to really use that back foot. You do it. You get that when she says push from the feet, she means really push from the feet.

You're on the tai chi spiral. As you learn, you will hear the same concepts again and again, but each time, the concept will have a deeper meaning for you because of the skills you’ve spent time building.

The next time you encounter "push from the feet," it might be part of a lesson in softness, or as part of push hands. You'll learn that you can push and relax your muscles at the same time. You'll learn that pushing effectively allows you to take your arm muscles out of the equation and perform a connected, effective technique.

In between these revelations, you'll hear the phrase "push from the feet" hundreds of times. But when the phrase really pops for you, that's when you're really learning.

There is no end to the depth of each tai chi concept. Push from the feet has a superficial meaning, but can also be completely profound.

If you're familiar with western forms of exercise, this concept will probably seem a little strange. You can become a better and better runner, for example, but once you've accomplished good technique, running up the same hill each morning is going to pretty much challenge your heart, lungs and legs in the same way.

Tai chi is different. As you train, your body and mind open up in new, very deep, ways. A tai chi set in Year One is not equal to a tai chi set in Year Four. That Year Fifteen tai chi set is many times more challenging than the Year One set - because you are able to do more, you can go deeper, open inside further, and use your energy much more profoundly. Returning to the same concepts is a little like returning over and over to visit old friends - except the friends are getting smarter, wittier, and better dressed as the years pass.

That's the tai chi spiral.

3 comments:

Laurie Peel said...

Great description of the Tai Chi learning process! It's that spiral that makes learning Tai Chi a life-long adventure - and why advanced students and newbies can work on the same lessons and each be getting what they need to progress. I have traveled the Tai Chi path for several years now, and it reminds me of the very beginning of the yellow brick road in "The Wizard of Oz". You go around and around the same basic concepts, each circling wider than the last, each pass adding to the depth of your understanding. Dragons and Tigers and Bears oh my!

Dr. Melissa Smith said...

LOL, Laurie. That's exactly it! Merry Christmas.

Pat said...

I've noticed the same thing with the spiritual journey as a member of a 12 step group. Your description helps me uinderstand that I don't need to think that I need to know it all.