How to Find a Good Tai Chi Class

How to Find a Good Tai Chi Class

So you’ve decided you want to try Tai Chi. Good for you! I’ve been practicing Tai Chi for over 20 years and I love it. I often tell my students (as an instructor) and my patients (as a PT) that if I had my way, everyone would do Tai Chi. In my view it is a perfect form of exercise that anyone can learn and practice throughout their lifespan.

Interest in Tai Chi has grown significantly over the years, particularly as its physical and mental health benefits have become more well known and more accepted, even promoted, by the health community. However, there are a lot of different classes, programs, and groups out there calling themselves “Tai Chi”, yet there is increasing debate about what is (and should be called) Tai Chi, and what is simply using the name to exploit a market. What’s worse is that there is ongoing debate amongst Tai Chi instructors/masters as to how to define what is and isn’t considered Tai Chi – to the point where some argue that “Tai Chi” is not the real Tai Chi. If Tai Chi practitioners can’t even agree on what is really Tai Chi, how is the average person with no previous exposure to Tai Chi – perhaps no exposure to martial arts, exercise or mindfulness classes in general – supposed to know if what they’re getting involved in is really Tai Chi?

It’s not the purpose of this article to define what is or isn’t Tai Chi, nor to define what is or isn’t “good” Tai Chi. However, I do believe that there are a number of practitioners out there who are using the term “Tai Chi” but offering something that at best may be based on Tai Chi or Tai Chi-like, but not actually Tai Chi, and others that have no foundation or basis in – and therefore no right to claim to be – Tai Chi. Having said that, any form of exercise, as long as it’s safe, can be beneficial, and should be encouraged. What I’m hoping to do is give people a way to find what they’re looking for and an understanding of what it is they’re actually getting themselves into.

1. Don’t Get Lost in Terminology

The fact that there is debate even amongst experienced Tai Chi instructors/masters as to what “Tai Chi” is and even what it should be called can make the whole situation even more confusing. To try and help avoid getting lost in the terminology I’d like to suggest adopting the following definitions:

  • Tai Chi: the generic, English term for taiji, which includes taijiquan, T’ai Ch’i and whatever other variations exist.
  • taijiquan: pronounced “tie chee chwan”, often used to reference or distinguish Tai Chi as a martial art, and often used by those who want to place a particular focus on the martial aspect of Tai Chi; as Tai Chi is a martial art, if you are doing Tai Chi, you are doing taijiquan, whether or not the martial aspect is focused on.
  • qigong: pronounced “chee goong” sometimes called Chi Kung, in simplest terms, qigong is a set of exercises designed to work internal energy – qi – in the body. While Tai Chi also works internal energy, it is not an interchangeable term with qigong. While Tai Chi classes may incorporate qigong training, they are not the same thing.

2. Know What You Want

In order to find something that will suit you, you need to understand what you want in a Tai Chi class. Are you looking for a light and easy way to exercise? Are you wanting to explore the philosophy and mindfulness aspects? Are you wanting to learn a martial art? Are you looking for a social group? There are many classes out there titled “Tai Chi” that can fit one or more of these (and other) requirements, yet many will not fit all of them, and thus may not really offer what you’re looking for. You need to decide what is important to you in terms of starting to learn Tai Chi. Having an idea of your own desires and expectations from a Tai Chi class will help you find a suitable class without having to go through so much of the trial and error process.

3. Know What You’re Getting

This can be a little trickier, and might require some research on your part. As previously stated there are a lot of services out there referring to themselves as a Tai Chi class. While it’s almost impossible to know until you have some experience with the class, here are some considerations I would make before attending a class:

  • What are the instructor’s/master’s credentials? This can be broken down into three components: 1) what experience do they have?; 2) who did they learn from?; 3) what qualification do they hold? While there’s no definitive answer to any of these questions that will qualify whether what they offer is actually Tai Chi, in general a bona fide Tai Chi instructor/master will have spent considerable time (years) developing their skills to the point where their instructor/master is satisfied they can teach those skills to someone else, and will often be able to detail their lineage – the masters that have preceded them. Instructors who have gained their qualification in a weekend or several weeks might at best be teaching an exercise class based on Tai Chi, but it is not Tai Chi;
  • What is actually being taught? There’s two parts to this: 1) most Tai Chi will derive from one of the four main Tai Chi families: Chen, Yang, Wu (Hao), or Sun, and a good instructor/master should be able to explain not just where what they’re teaching derives from, but whether it is a traditional sequence, or a derivative of one of those sequences, or simply based on it (this last point in particular would make me question whether it is Tai Chi). 2) Tai Chi will feature some kind of energy (qi) component to it, directly and perhaps also in adjunct exercises like qigong – this is a fundamental component of Tai Chi and any class that does not explore the qi aspect is not Tai Chi. In addition, as Tai Chi is a martial art any sequence will have a martial application. Even if the martial aspect is not taught in the class, the instructor/master should know the martial origin of the forms, as this explains why they are performed a certain way. Anything without martial application may (or may not) be qigong, but it is not Tai Chi.

This is not to say that anything that is not able to satisfy these considerations is not beneficial to you; it just might not be Tai Chi.

4. (If Possible) Try Before You Buy

The only way to really get a sense of what you’re going to be doing in a Tai Chi class is to go along and try it for yourself. Many of today’s instructors/masters understand that people new to Tai Chi will want to experience a class before committing to it, and will offer some way to facilitate that. They might allow someone to attend a free class, pay for a single class/session, or even allow you to sit in for part of a class to observe. Some may even hold demonstrations at health expos or other community events. For example, Wisconsin Tai Chi Academy routinely offers free “Come ‘n Try” sessions especially designed for people who have never experienced Tai Chi before. Such opportunities are less about discovering “is this Tai Chi?” and more about “is this something I want to do?”

Whether you are looking to explore the depth that is Tai Chi, or looking for a simple way of exercising, or just looking to try something new, I hope this will assist you in finding what you are looking for.


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