How Long Does It Take to Achieve Tai Chi Skill?
April 09, 2011
A couple of cool things happened this week. On Monday, I drove to Rockford, Illinois to reconnect with my old instructors, Jim and Angela Criscimagna. Angela was visiting a friend, so Jim and I talked about taiji and he coached me through some Xinjia movements, giving me new insights into the body mechanics, the principles and the form.
I first met Jim and Angela in 1998. I was using a neijia listserve and seeing internal terms that I hadn't been taught -- terms like peng jin and ground path. I asked the list (Mike Sigman was one of the main contributors at that point) if there was anyone in the Chicago area that I could meet who could show me some of these concepts.
They directed me to Jim and Angela. I drove to their house one Saturday morning and within an hour, I realized that after spending over a decade studying tai chi, I was going to have to start over. I had really learned nothing about real taijiquan.
The best thing about a good teacher is this -- you should leave a class very often feeling psyched -- feeling as if you have gained a small insight. When I studied with Jim and Angela, I frequently made the 2-hour drive home bouncing off the car's interior. I felt the same way on Monday, because I felt that I had gained insight and that there is a LOT of work to do. But without these little insights, you can't take the baby steps forward that you need to make to improve skill.
On Wednesday, a new student came to our practice -- and he asked a question that made so many people ask:
How long does it take to become good at Tai Chi?
I think I smiled and said, "A lifetime." The new student shook his head and laughed.
Learning the movements of the form is the first step. The "choreography" is important. But then you begin to add layers to the onion -- you learn one body mechanic and apply it to the movements, then another, then another, and if you're honest with yourself, you understand that it will take many years to become proficient. I've been at Chen tai chi for 13 years and I feel that I've just begun.
It's fun to see someone who is taking his first steps on the path. It's fun to show them a couple of things about body mechanics and see the amazement. But the power of tai chi is not mystical -- it's a physical skill. Seeing Jim again on Monday, talking about tai chi and various Chen masters and being coached through movements, I felt I took a very small step foward intellectually. Now the hard work continues as I try to translate the intellectual into physical movement.
How long does it take to achieve taiji skill? First, it takes an instructor who can actually tell you what the abstract Chinese concepts mean in terms of movement and mechanics. Then, it takes quite a few years of hard work, thought, and understanding. Will you make it? Maybe. But you have to get to work now.
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