If you've ever attended a workshop by a member of the Chen family, you understand why the comment would be made. Students hold postures while the instructor walks around the room, correcting each student individually. By the time he gets to you, your legs are often shaking with fatigue, and if he puts you into the correct posture, you may just collapse to the floor (photo at left shows Chen Xiaowang correcting me during a private lesson a few years ago).
This is one of the reasons I get annoyed when I see online ads that promise "easy tai chi." I'm sorry, my friends, there is no such thing. Fake tai chi might be easy. The health type of tai chi for "moving meditation" might be easy. Tai Chi for senior citizens might be easy.
Real tai chi is very difficult and takes years of practice to even begin to see proper body mechanics.
So when the comment was made at the workshop about how difficult tai chi is, Grandmaster Chen smiled and said, "If it was easy, everyone be master."
The pursuit of the title of master is a mental disease in America. Open the phone book of any American city, look at the ads in the martial arts section of the yellow pages, and there are more masters than you can shake a staff at. Sorry to burst your bubble, but real mastery of the martial arts requires more than most of these people have had to endure. It also requires skill that most of these people don't have. Almost any American who claims to be a master of tai chi would be laughed at by the people who are considered to be masters in China.
Several years ago I was in Chicago for two or three days and I stopped by a tai chi school in the city. A woman who may have been in her thirties or forties walked up to me, dressed in a tai chi uniform. She introduced herself as "Master" something-or-other and I immediately left the building. Anyone who introduces themselves as a master is definitely not a master.
In America, we expect to see results immediately. We want instant gratification. We're a "take it now, pay for it later" culture, not willing to sacrifice and wait for the payoff. We want it now.
In the martial arts, that has resulted in a lot of schools around the country that promote you to the next belt in three months, whether you're ready or not. They sell you memberships to their "Black Belt Club" and guarantee that you'll receive a black belt. For the next promotion you might need to know a few extra techniques and maybe a form. The quality is negotiable.
Some of these schools are making good money.
When I began studying Chen tai chi, I had already studied Yang style for over a decade. I was pretty good. My teacher said I was the best he had seen for an under black-belt student. I won a national title in tai chi forms at the AAU Kung-Fu National Championships in 1990.
Then, in 1998, I met Jim and Angela Criscimagna (now disciples of Chen Xiaowang) and I began seeing how difficult it is to achieve good tai chi body mechanics. Month after month I studied, drove a 4-hour round trip to go to classes -- sometimes twice a week -- and learned weekly lessons in humility. Week after week, month after month, my bad habits were corrected. Class after class, I left and made the long drive home realizing just how much I had to learn, but energized by the fact that what I was learning was high-quality.
It's too much for some people. I've had students come to me after studying other styles of martial arts. Most of them don't last long. They see how difficult it is, and they can't adjust to the fact that THIS TAKES YEARS, not months or weeks. Quality martial arts is a long-term commitment. When your experience in martial arts is in a taekwondo school or whatever, and a punch is simply a matter of maintaining muscle tension and balance -- and twisting the hips into the punch -- it's a rude awakening when you're faced with the internal arts. Establishing ground path, maintaining peng, rotating the dan t'ien (NOT the hips) and other physical skills are so foreign that most students run screaming back to the schools that make you feel like you've really achieved by accomplishing far less.
When I was faced with this, I realized that as long as I could take baby steps forward and see even a little progress every few months, I would be learning something of real value, something of a higher quality than I had ever learned. There was no real choice to be made. It was either tackle something very difficult or continue to live in a bubble.
I still work very hard to learn the skills of tai chi, hsing-i and bagua. I know the principles and I know what I'm trying to achieve. In a few weeks I'll be 57 years old, and I understand that this takes so long, I'll never be as good as I want to be at these amazing arts. I teach, and try to pass these principles on, and I know that my students sometimes think I'm too picky. It's true that I don't congratulate them when their body mechanics are bad. If I wanted to run a McDojo everyone would be promoted and everyone's ego would be stroked, but that's not the path to quality.
I hope you'll make a vow to yourself to pursue quality no matter how long it takes. It may feel good to strap on a black belt that took you only two years to earn, and you might fool a lot of friends and family into thinking that you're a deadly weapon, but when you look in the mirror, don't fool yourself. If this stuff was easy, everyone would be a master.