1.c.-learning-process-in-my-school Section

Beginning The Learning Process in Nick Gudge's School

written by NIck Gudge

The study of taijiquan (tai chi) is best approached systematically. There is a learning process, established over generations, which has demonstrated its success above and beyond all others. This process is not easy to understand and is frequently counter-intuitive. Nevertheless its success rate is unequalled. This process is that of the traditional taijiquan taught in Chen village. While teaching methods have changed as the culture and social environment have changed, the learning process has remained remarkably unchanged.

The initial step of this process is to loosen the body while learning the foundation or first form (laojia yilu) (literally translated as old method first form.) In Chinese this is known as fang song. It sounds easy but it is not. For those who are aged beyond their youth, the body has established almost all of its physical patterning. By this I mean the habits of how it moves and does work. These habits unfortunately include stiffening in places that are both hard to identify and persist in resisting the process of change. These habits come from many places, mostly leaned behaviour from our parents but also as a consequence of injuries.

In my school in Limerick my tai chi classes provide a “beginner’s process” that systemically identifies these places and explores various ways to train to loosen them and move while keeping them loose. For almost all my student this beginner’s process is the most critical step to loosening their body. Without it the entry skills of taijiquan are much less likely to be gained and the main health benefits will be little more than those derived from taking a walk in the park.

As this process is so critical, and given the average age of my students (over 30,) I use a ‘disposable form’ as the construct within which I teach these new skills. I teach part of a simplified form, (Cheng Man Ching’s shortened Yang Style Form,) so the student can concentrate on loosening the body and not be too caught-up in the choreography of the movements.

Once the body reaches a certain degree of looseness then the student advances to the second stage and begins to learn Chen Style taijiquan with an 18 Step Form devised by Chen Zheng Lei. Now the emphasis expands to a dual focus of continuing the process of loosening the body while learning choreography which will be the foundation of their taiji learning process. During this time silk-reeling exercises (chan si gong) are taught to aid the process of acquiring the skill of moving without stiffness. This is an intermediate step towards learning the traditional 74 step first form (laojia yilu.)

My experience is that taking beginners through these two learning stages (the beginners form and the 18 step form) allow the traditional form to be learn more efficiently than trying to teach it immediately. It makes the learning curve less steep and significantly improves the likelihood of the student gaining the basic skills. Occasionally students can move more quickly through this beginner’s curriculum if their natural ability and willingness to train sufficiently allow them to gain the critical basic understanding and skills.

From this point on the traditional training route, learning the traditional 74 step first form (laojia yilu.) is followed. This process is not simply the memorizing of the choreography of movements. It includes increasing understanding of what taijiquan is; the fundamental principles of taiji; the process of silk reeling; the understanding of how to move and basic conditioning and stretching exercises. The process of first learning the laojia yilu takes approximately 15 months in my school. The foundation form must then be practiced. During this initial period of practice it is revised, posture by posture to provide corrections and help the student develop the understanding and practice skills that are fundamental to acquiring the skills of taijiquan.

(For those interested in reading further, please see the following articles: The Six Stages of Learning Chen Style Taijiquan; Gaining the Skills of Taijiquan; and Taijiquan: Getting It.)

Nick Gudge teaches tai chi classes in Limerick.