Monday, 11 August 2014

The Form Part 2: How Best to Learn the Tai Chi Form

The only thing that interferes with my learning - said Einstein - is my education. Does your education get in the way of how you learn the Form?

In the last episode of the podcast we looked at the structure of the Form, it's roots, it's history and the way it is taught. In this episode, I want to focus on something of my favorite themes: Teaching and Learning, because its too easy to say to students, "you must learn the Form, or... I will teach you the Form"...but students have major difficulties not just with the techniques  -  but with the process of learning too.

Now who said:

Ways of Learning the Tai Chi Form*The more we think we know, the less we can really see what have to do.
*If the body is free of all tension, free  of all expectation and the mind is free of all distraction, then true learning can take place.

*If the mind is stagnant, the postures assimilated through the lens of an earlier session, then the form will never be truly be learnt, it will only be poorly copied.

Nope. It's wasn't just the babbling nonsense of a crazy man in the south of Europe, its also the thoughts of Krishnamurti, Bruce Lee, Thoreau, and host of other creative minds.

Trust Your Body

When learning the sequence of moves, don't try too hard to grasp the facts and the details of every sequence. The worse method is to over analyze the process. As a teacher try to avoid giving out handouts on foot angles, weight distribution or a 10 step check-list for attaining the correct angle of the eyebrow.

Instead, rethink Ways of Learning and try to trust your body. Allow the body to learn by simple repetition. And focus on the pattern and the feeling of flow from one move to another. It is these factors that make a practitioner competent, not simply the repitition or shadowing of another's moves. 

I believe a good instructor of Bean Curd Boxing should try to emphasise the fundamental rules rather than the strict geometrical positions. i.e. move with empty weight, keep the spine straight, when one part moves, all parts move etc. These basic rules can be found in what is known as the Tai Chi Classics, a set of principles (though sometimes rather vague and abstract) that define the basic underlying movements of Tai Chi.


The most common way of learning the Form is to try and memorise it. This is also the worst way. "It is only when we forget all our learning" said Henry Thoreau - "that we begin to know."

If we only use our heads to understand, imitate and then reproduce the movements we will have learnt little else other than how to effectively copy.

Although this might give the impression of learning, it is in fact no different than learning how to draw by using tracing paper.

Instead feel for the pattern of the moves. Watch to see how your own body interprets these movements. Yes, of course copy your teacher, but ingest the moves. Absorb them, make them yours. Your teacher will probably we hoping for you to imitate him or her. Do this is you have no choice, but don't let it become a habit.

It may sound obvious, but remember to keep your eyes open and alert to what is happening around you when practising. Dont go all other worldly, don't go off in search of another planet somewhere, stay on earth when practicing tai chi. This is not a short cut for astral projection, if you're looking to travel amongst the clouds, try paragliding.


Finally, one last tip for learning the Form - and that is to simply observe. Do not always try and do it at the same time. Stop copying for a moment. Stand or sit to one side of the class and watch the rest of the group go through a complete Form. Watch how the other students cope and how they interpret the moves and transitions. See yourself as part of the whole process and not something separate. Do this regularly, even if the other students get a bit huffy with you for staring at them and spending inordinate amounts of time sitting to one side and examining their transitions. It's a worthwhile exercise and you will gain an overview for your learning that will feed directly back into your performance.

Listen to the whole audio version above, or download it to your mobile device. Subscribe free to the series on itunes: Talking Tai Chi with the teapotmonk.

Find out more about different approaches to teaching tai chi and learning this incredible art in the paperbook, ebook or audiobook versions of: Ways Of Learning.  

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Simple Steps to Challenging an Expert

Empower Yourself Today: Challenge an Expert

Experts are notoriously biased. Not because they are necessarily wrong, rather they think they are almost always right. But experts are as susceptible to errors as anyone. 

Ways of Learning audiobookIn this audio book chapter: The Illusion of Certainty - the teapotmonk is back exploring the issue of "certainty" and asks: How do we ensure that the information we are given by 'experts' is in our interest and not theirs?

It's time to question the pillars of knowledge once more, in the usual bean-curd multi-media style. Listen here, download the file to your portable device or just share it with everyone using the options below

This crazy audio chapter is taken from the new Audiobook - Ways of Learning. Find out more here. 

Ways of Learning: Audiobook

There is just so much time to take in a never diminishing quantity of information. Our eyes are constantly at work: read this post, read this article, read this tweet, read this times the screen appears to be permanently in front of our face. For a more balanced life - and to discover another WAY OF LEARNING - try your ears instead of your eyes.

18 Challenging Chapters narrated by the mOnk with music, sound effects and subtle asides that challenge our Ways of Learning and Teaching and send rebellious ripples through dojo's across the universe 

Find out more here. You'll be surprised...

And after all of that...for the studious ones amongst you - watch the TED Watch the Noreen Hertz video on the Problem with Experts

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Apps For Teachers:

Keeping up-to-date

Once upon a time, you flicked through a paperback; asked around; bought the latest magazine that promised to reveal the whole sequence of the un-ironed shirt internal qi exercises. You generally chatted in coffee shops to other interested (or not in many cases) parties to keep your finger on the pulse of what was happening in the world of martial arts.

Now we have other means at our disposal. Now technology has given us the smartphone and the tablet. (Well, not given exactly, but you know what I mean). With these devices - and more specifically the apps you can download for free or 1€, your class can become a hotbed of news, gossip and they can help form a loose network that will bond members together in ways unthinkable just 5 years ago.

Research and Communication Apps for Teachers

Today I'm going to look at two areas of apps for teachers and students of the martial arts: Research and Communication. Other areas, such as organisation and structure, I will cover in a future post.

Research; Zite and Pocket

Zite (Free)  -
Yes, you can build a list of RSS feeds, bookmark favourite sites or blogs and follow your fave writers (such as that strange quirky guy called the Bean Curd Boxer) - and this is of course advisable. But if you want to keep abreast of the tai chi world as a whole, you will need to employ an aggegator of news. My fave is Zite, as it works on Android, Apple phones as well as Amazon tablets. You easily set up the search terms you are intersted in: Chi Gung, taichi podcasts, taoism, punch-bags, wifi-enabled nunchaku offersDonnie Yen, tai chi flash-mobs, bean curd, becoming an immortal - to give a few juicy examples - and then let Zite do the rest. 

Every time you then look at the app, it refreshes the categories and delivers news to your phone or tablet. From there, you can share via a tweet, FB etc or - and this is where it gets interesting for Teachers - send the file to Pocket.

Pocket (Free)
Pocket is a store house for all the articles on the web that you would like to keep for future reference. Download it for your desktop, phone and tablet for free. You can tag these articles for easy future reference and once read, either keep them or share them via social media sites. Perhps even share them via a social messaging app like Whatsapp.

Class Cohesion Style 2014: Whatsapp

Whatsapp -

Of course as teachers, we all are told to get a Facebook page up and runing, set up a Youtube channel, open a twitter account  or create a Pinterest board.

But I'd like to focus today on a social messaging app called Whatsapp.
Whatsapp is a individual or group communication application that works on all smartphones. The first thing you need to do is encourage everyone to download the app and join the group you have created for your class.Then everyone can share text messages, images, videos or even voice messages.

In my class, we use the taichi group we have set up to send out messages that inform each other of who is coming, or who will be absent from a class. Whether today you need to bring in the sword, the stick, the tofu or the sandwiches. Who is in need of a lift home after, or who may need a lift to get to the class. Absent students can ask for updates from other members of the group, exchanging photos or videos of postures or techniques.

But more importantly than any of this, is the cohesion and bonding that is created outside of the class time-table. 
Students arrange sudden practice sessions at a location and invite everyone to participate - sending a map and times to meet for example. They share concerns of techniques, questions, they share news and videos they find on the web and they share their excitement and pleasure at being part of a new social group.  

When we began to set it up last year, people were initially reluctant to join "yet another group" and be bombarded with yet more "information". Yet very quickly it grew to become the first point of consultation for everyone, and has enabled a sense of connection that the class alone could not achieve.

Try it. Use any app that works for you. Don't just take my list as gospel. Open a dialogue and leave it open. You might be surprised how much it is appreciated.   

Monday, 9 June 2014

Why are Tai Chi Teachers Hung-Up on Detail?

Meaning is not in the Detail

Is it just me or have we been taking ourselves just a little too seriously lately? Every time I do a search for some Tai Chi info on the net, I feel inundated with dogma and detail. I feel swamped in minutiae as one "expert" after another discloses some previously "secret" technique or revelation that promises to revolutionise my practice. Revolutionise? 

Well, I can only conclude two things:

1. Details do not convey meaning: I'm reminded of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in which the Answer to the "Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything" is 42. Maybe its because I'm a cynic, but I've never been convinced that the answer to improving my tai chi practice is to be found in the angle of my eyebrow or the GPS location of my Tan Tien. 

2. If an "expert", "teacher", "sifu" or "guru" can't laugh at him/herself, doesn't know the importance of a smile or can't even perform a simple shuffle when explaining the the necessary steps for acquiring immortality, then I'm don't want it. 

Wanna know why?

Because as Emma Goldman said: If there won't be dancing at the revolution, I'm not coming. 

Want more Non-secrets of Tai Chi? Want to know the obvious rather than the obscure? Want to practice your form without the need of calculator?
Read 50 Questions and Answers: Now at the revolutionary price of just 99c. Get it from Amazon, iBooks, Kobo or direct from here.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

An Interconnected World: Where Art Defines Itself in the 21st Century


Mark Ronson and A Musical Mash-Up

The Greatest Fighters and Writers in A Martial Mix-Up

Images from  - One Last Thing: 

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Ice Dissolving Into Water: The Formless Form of Tai Chi

Why do Forms differ from style to style, class to class and even instructor to instructor?

Is it the postures or the spaces between them that define the tai chi form? 

And what did Bruce Lee mean when he said…"When one has reached maturity in the art, one will have a formless form"

The Tai Chi Form

Today we begin our short series on the Form  - that slow dance of breath we all memorize in such minute detail. This is the form, a rather defined name I've always thought for something so fluid and so abstract, but there you have it for according to some is the ultimate expression of tai chi, whilst others see it as paralysis. 

Also in the show:
  • Is Tai Chi Tai Chi no more that simply a list of postures strung together over the course of time?
  • Does competency in the form translate to anything else?
  • Why is it better to learn in a group a than individually?
  • If it is it true that the more you know, the more you realise you don't know - how come there are so many instructors out there with all the answers?

Listen to the whole episode below, download it to your player or subscribe to the podcast in itunes.

The Talking Tai Chi Podcast is based on the book This is Tai Chi 50 Questions and Answers.
You can find out more about the podcast here.

Link to blog post on memory muscles

Links to Cheese post

Friday, 23 May 2014

Down But Not Out

A Week of Weakness. 

Immunity disorders, postal orders and Euro Election myopia has disrupted by usual flow of nonsense - but fear not - for the mOnk will return before the creases in your Sifu's suit need re-ironing.

In the meantime - one activity I have been engaged upon these last few days of term, is taking the class outside. Part publicity, part confidence building, part fun. And to show just what I mean, here is the latest episode as part of our final project.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Why You Should Take Your Tai Chi Onto the Street

Tai Chi on the streets of Loja with the teapotmonkAs my yearly course for the local town hall comes to a close in May of each year, I try to encourage my students to spend some of these final sessions practising outside the classroom

This is for a couple of reasons:

Tai Chi in the Classroom

First, the heat in May means that the rooms are too hot, even at 6.30 in the afternoon it can be unbearable inside.

Secondly, as we have been training all year inside, it is about time we tried to see if  could reproduce the tranquility and sense of centered-ness on the streets.

The public performances also have the benefit of stimulating interest in the art, provoking questions from on-lookers and hopefully encouraging recruitment for the next term.

So, reluctant as they are each year, the students eventually agree to come out and do a series of small exhibitions in different areas of the town.

Tai Chi on the Street

The arguments against: As we live and work in a rather small small town, it is difficult for most of them as everyone knows everyone and there is not hiding in the anonymity of a big city or like me - being an outsider.

But there is another deeper reason: And that is fear of being seen to do something in public that you know is not perfect.

And this is what we are always trying to fight against. And this is why we go outside.

Tai Chi Flash-mobbing 

As you will see from the video below, only a few turned up in to the first session. And the few brave souls that made it, trembled their way through just a small section of the form. They sweated, the stumbled, they slipped or forgot moves, they cringed as kids yelled or cars screeched, but - and this is important - by the time they were half way through the session, they were relaxed, calm and had found their centre once more. In fact, after the second performance they were the ones to persuade me to carry on.

"Hey, Pablo", they would say, "I know the owner of such and such a bar/shop/building - why don't we go and do a bit of the form there?"

And so we did.

And so we shall continue to do so throughout this month. Meditating in the Shaolin temple on a mountain top, under a misty moon-lit sky or performing the form in the incense-lit, sprung wooden-floor private training hall is all very nice. But try doing some tai chi with a group of beginners in your high street and then see how well the lessons have been learnt.

More next week.

Read more about Taking tai chi out of the classroom in the book "Ways of Learning".

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