Taking The First Step

How to overcome that first objection: I don’t think I’d be very good at Tai Chi.

Welcome to The Water Method; thoughts and theories on Tai Chi in the modern world. In today’s post, I’ll be discussing ways and means to tackle that age old excuse from many new beginners – “I just don’t think I would be very good at Tai Chi.”

With every passing day, Tai Chi becomes more popular and more well know across the world. People are attracted to it for all sorts of reasons, ranging from it’s martial application, via it’s rich cultural legacy and through to the myriad health benefits that it offers. Many of us who begin learning the art often go through that evangelical phase when we first start to experience the benefits of practice; that subtle centring inside us, staying calmer and more focused at the same time, feeling that we are in better control of both our bodies and our minds. For some of us, there’s the added feeling of confidence, or security, when we run through some applications and learn how to defend ourselves, while others notice a small but substantial improvement to their wellbeing. It’s a great thing to go through, and one that most of us want to share with our families and friends, leading to us preaching to anyone who will listen to us!

But on an anecdotal level, albeit one that I’ve heard repeated by numerous teachers, students and people who would perhaps like to be students, there’s a common excuse – one that must be heard in training halls all over the planet, in many different languages. And that is the classic “I don’t think I’m cut out for it”. This excuse takes many forms. Firstly, there’s the fear of trying something new and the potential for embarrassment. Secondly, the innate feeling that we don’t have the ability to physically do the movements that are required to become good at Tai Chi. Finally, there’s the danger of a person’s preconception of Tai Chi (and all that it entails) getting in the way of their training.

Who would have thought that Karate wasn’t appropriate for a Tai Chi class?

So, I’m going to go through each of the three above points and attempt to overcome them. Whenever you hear the excuse, and the inevitable reason coming afterwards, hopefully your guard will be up ready to take it on and deflect it. If the student offers up one of those reasons, then here’s the next move to follow up with; consider it a practical application of the Tai Chi principles, only with words and thought processes instead of strikes or blocks.

Let’s start with that initial wariness of attempting a new hobby, and all of the social anxieties that come with it. Anytime someone enters a training hall for the first time, they can feel like they’re being judged; they don’t want to disrupt the class by asking questions all of the time, or stumbling into others, but they’re entirely new to this thing – it’s a closed circle of awkwardness. It’s in this situation that most of us forget that actually, all of those instructors and higher level students went through the exact same thing before them, so they know and can relate to this predicament. Even those of us with a prior background in the martial arts – I first started Tai Chi classes thinking that my strong Karate stances and willingness to stand in uncomfortable positions for long periods of time would almost certainly fast track me through then grades. Turns out I was completely wrong, and instead had to unlearn what I had learned, much to the amusement of my first instructor. Who would have thought that Karate wasn’t appropriate for a Tai Chi class?

Moving on the next point, I’ve seen some entertaining memes and comments across the internet gently mocking the idea that people can’t learn Tai Chi because they don’t have the co-ordination, or the balance, or the knowledge to do so. But if someone says to me “I wouldn’t be very good at Tai Chi – I don’t have the co-ordination!” I would calmly reply “No, you practice Tai Chi to learn co-ordination!” I’ve actually done this a few times and while people don’t often like being told that they’re wrong, they seem to realise that this makes sense. None of us started off with perfect poise and an innate sensitivity to everything around them, so we begin with the vey basics and slowly (sometimes, painfully so) improve our understanding. It’s not a quick and easy answer, but then neither is the training, so if they’re not ok with the answer then will they be ok with the training?

Finally, let’s have a little fun with that last point, about people’s preconceptions of the martial art. Just let me crack my knuckles and limber up first though, because this is one that I’ve encountered a lot and have been looking forward to writing about for a little while now.

When we speak to laypersons, just mentioning Tai Chi instantly throws up images and ideas in their heads without us having to do anything else – the yin and yang symbol, a sort of slow motion Kung Fu, old people sneaking up on trees(?). And that’s great, because it means that in a few words we’ve already got across a rough idea of what we’re really talking about. The only trouble is that after decades of fictional representation of the style, and a general lack of concrete knowledge of it, people are in the right ball park but are actually looking outside the ball park and at something else completely different. So it’s a double edged sword; we have a short hand for the art thanks to years of public awareness, but that awareness isn’t as accurate as we would like it.

I don’t think anyone expects us to shout “no pain, no gain” at them in the class.

I’ve seen many a promising, potential student attempt their first class and come away looking a bit bemused and slightly out of breath. It turns out that the copious amounts of Qigong and drilling of stance work actually required a bit of a physical (and mental) effort on their part, almost like some kind of martial arts class no less. Who would have thunk it?! Unfortunately, they were looking to slowly wave their arms around and breathe deeply for an hour or so, and come away feeling relaxed and “very Zen”. Instead, that pesky instructor of theirs expected some kind of exertion to get a reward; I don’t think anyone expects us to shout “no pain, no gain” at them in the class, but the point would be valid.

All of which means that we have new people walk through the front door, eager to learn, with their cups already full. Full of worry that they’ll be rubbish on their very first attempt – weren’t we all? – and scared of being judged – even though we’ve all been there – and expecting something that might not be true – which it probably isn’t. But if they make it to the front door, at the time that the class starts, that’s the hard part done, they’re willing to at least try. And now, if I hear someone winding up their excuse, I know exactly what I’m going to say to make them stay.

That brings us to the end of the post; I hope you’ve enjoyed The Water Method and will join me next time for another discussion about the martial arts in the modern world. So until then, be like water.

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