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Tai Chi Styles – Finding the Right One
If you haven’t been exposed to a lot of sports, it may (or may not) surprise you to know that professional athletes are very competitive about their style. Practitioners who spend all their time in a particular style of martial art almost invariably believe that their style is better than others. I think this is more common among younger people – at least I hope so.
The more experience (and skill) the student has, I think, the more willing they are to see the strengths of other models and want to learn them. I know that many martial artists who study hard, external forms like Tae kwan do or Karate for years will do soft, internal things like Tai Chi to find a good balance in their life .
Bruce Lee is the best example of a martial artist who constantly strives to expand his knowledge. He started learning Wing Chun, a form of Kung Fu (or Gong Fu), but eventually found it limiting. So he took elements from many other martial arts and put them into his own style and called it Jeet Kune Do. His philosophy is “style without style” – a performance that can be adjusted and changed depending on the style of the opponent.
My two young sons just started learning Wing Chun near their grandparents’ house, where they spend a lot of summer. This is my youngest son’s (10 years old) first experience learning martial arts, while his older brother (14 years old) has been learning Seven Star Praying Mantis Kung Fu for years with me. the eldest son (age 17).
While I thought this teacher was good and capable, I was a little shocked to see how hateful he seemed to be against all kinds of battles. . He seemed to dismiss the Seven Star Praying Mantis as a waste of time and boasted of beating everything he fought against.
I still haven’t brought up the subject of Tai Chi with him (although I’m sure he can benefit from it). I’m just saying that some of the arm movements in a Wing Chun form remind me of Chi Gung (Qigong) and it’s kind of insulting. He may be an excellent martial artist and Wing Chun instructor, but I think he has a lot of learning to do in life. On the other hand, what about me, I hope.
By comparison, my sons’ Seven Star Praying Mantis home teacher has also studied many other disciplines and is happy to introduce elements of other skills into his lessons. Between them, I have no way of knowing who is the better fighter (and less popular), but I do know who is the wiser man. One with more openness.
This is a long and rambling introduction, I know, but what I have been working on is this: Tai Chi teachers are no different from other martial arts teachers. There are many different styles and sub-styles of Tai Chi. Some teachers will believe and tell you that they are the best Tai Chi. Some will also tell you that they only do Tai Chi and may not know that there is anything else. The only thing that matters is what is Tai Chi for you.
Most of the Tai Chi classes taught are variations of Yang Style Tai Chi. This is a pretty safe and pleasant for most people (also on the Toyota Camry of Tai Chi) to make slow, smooth acceleration without sudden movements or jumps.
Or Dr. Paul Lam teaches seminars and has DVDs for a program called “Tai Chi for Arthritis. His style of Tai Chi is called Sun (pronounced “quick”) and should be done a little faster, but found to be even softer and especially useful for people with joint problems.
Chen and Wudang Tai Chi are two arts that are older and require more exercise because they retain some of the jumpiness and speed of movement that is held by the original Shaolin Kung Fu roots. . Both of these are even harder to find classes unless you live near a major city.
There are a few other variations Tai Chi advocates that are thought to be better than others. However, I’m going to go out on a limb here and tell you a secret that the purists won’t like:
[spoken in a whisper] . . . it. . . no. . . problems. . . [horrified gasps of shock and awe]
Unless you have a physical problem that requires you to specifically take one of the soft forms, or you want to be the greatest Tai Chi Chuan fighter in the world and you want to take a special class for the battle of tai chi. It doesn’t matter what you study, because what you’re looking for is a way to better deal with stress, clear your mind and strengthen your body. Because of that, the most important thing is to go out and do it.
To that end, you should know that when some lucky people can try the class, fall in love with it and continue with that form for the rest of their lives. Others may try a class here, try a DVD there, and then, with luck and patience, find a coach or model that works for them.
My mother, before she passed away last year, had some serious problems with balance and leg strength due to anemia and other physical problems. He decided on his own to try a tai chi class not far from his apartment in New York City (I live near Philadelphia, so I don’t get to see him as much as I would like). He was uncomfortable and surprised because the teacher seemed to have no help for integration into the classroom. He told me that he was very nervous because all the other students advanced higher than him.
When he told me about this during my visit I was a little worried. Every tai chi instructor should make it his main goal to make sure all his students are comfortable. No one should be alone because they are a beginner or in any kind of pain. I told him to try a new teacher and a new class and keep going until he found the right one, because tai chi was the type of exercise he wanted. I demonstrated some of the things I was working on so he could see how fast it was, and he was very supportive and excited about the prospect of trying another class.
Sadly, my mother had a stroke just a few days after my visit and did not recover. When I was still in his apartment a few weeks later, I saw an entry on his calendar showing that he had signed up for a new class and a real teacher.
The lesson here for all Tai Chi students is that Tai Chi should be for everyone, regardless of age or body type, but your first class and teacher may not be the right one for you. . If you don’t feel comfortable in a class or with an instructor, don’t give up tai chi – try another class, and keep going until you find one that works for you.
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