5.a.xxxi.teaching-taijiquan-3-suggestions-beginnin Section

Teaching Taijiquan 3:

Suggested methods for beginning teaching taijiquan

 (by Nick Gudge - January 2006 - last updated August 2012)

This article is for those readers that a just looking for some suggestions about how they can most profitably and successfully start a taijiquan class. (For those who have longer term aspirations in teaching, who want to understand more so they can develop their own methods, to understanding why students undertake taijiquan classes and how classes can best meet their goals. I would recommend reading all five parts of my series ‘Teaching Taijiquan.’)

Please remember, these are my opinions, derived from 20 years of teaching. You will probably not agree with all of them. They do all play an important part in an overall whole. Before you discard any particular piece be aware that there will be consequences to the whole process.

Few teachers think much about how they are going to teach or even what they are going to teach. They do not understand that they have options or review the variety of opportunities they might choose. They simply follow the path they followed when they started learning taijiquan. I want to offer some alternatives and create the opportunity to explore them coherently.

Over my twenty plus years of teaching taijiquan, the two principle observations I have concerning beginners are: first that no beginner knows what taijiquan is in any meaningful sense; and second that people are much, much, much stiffer than they realise. My developed teaching responses to these two observations are:

  1. to lead people to an understanding of what taijiquan is
  2. to help people gain awareness of their stiffness and then help them loosen their bodies

Note that this is not a form or style specific response, nor a traditional response. It simply arises from my observations. I offer specific suggestions as to how to undertake these responses and to consequently achieve appropriate change in physical behaviour below. However a few words of caution first.

There are three major problems in communicating to students:

  1. The teacher sets the priorities, the students then rearrange them. If the teacher is not very clear, exaggeratedly so in their setting of skills priorities, the student will chose priorities of their own which will divert the learning process.
  2. What the teacher says and what the teacher does (or what the students see the teacher do) are not necessarily the same: the bigger the gap - the bigger the communication problem. Imagine if you will a teacher who talks about being ‘relaxed’ or ‘upright’ but is not. How well do you think their students will progress?
  3. Saying too much is ten times more of a problem then saying too little. Beginning students leave because they don’t understand as a consequence of being taught too much rather than because they are being taught too little.

My suggestions for teaching beginners can be split into two groups: the first is about ‘What to Teach’ which might be generally called curriculum. The second is about ‘How to Teach’ or methodology.

Generally speaking these are not traditional taijiquan teaching methods. This is because I mostly teach adults, and mostly not young adults. Most are not athletic. Some are elderly or infirm. Few are used to strenuous activity. All are unaware of the basic body mechanics and the bad habits they have built up in their lives.

One general observation I would add: the longer the bad habit has been ingrained, the more careful the transition process must be.

What to Teach

What I teach depends mostly on whom I am teaching. For beginners it always comes down to the two items mentioned above: i). leading people to an understanding of what taijiquan is, and ii). helping people gain awareness of their stiffness and then helping them learn how to loosen their bodies and to practice loosening their bodies. Leading students to an understanding of what taijiquan is will be a difficult task, particularly if the teacher does not have a good understanding. (For more details see my article ‘Good Understanding’.)

All taijiquan teachers use the medium of movements or postures. This is a tried and tested method and all the historical and current masters of taijiquan were taught using this medium. For beginners it is frequently a case of what is needed is less postures and more skills. The postures and movements are composed of two elements, choreography (where to move) and body mechanic’s (how to move.) Most inexperienced or unskilled teachers (i.e. almost all teachers) concentrate on the former and neglect the later. My emphasis in teaching beginners is primarily on gaining the skills of taijiquan, not on learning the choreography of taijiquan. My teaching of choreography is the path to gaining the skills.

I’ll return to some suggestions as to what to teach shortly but first let me touch upon how to teach.

How to Teach

Teaching is an art and, as with all arts, it has style. Remember, all that is required of teaching style is that it convey meaning, i.e. it leads students to understanding. Helping people learn is about a combination of the teacher’s and the students’ characters. It is about motivation, measures of success, and includes characteristics like understanding, patience, courtesy, humour, caring, self-awareness, integrity, listening, perseverance, selflessness, empathy, communication, self-control, leadership, and morality. It takes skill, practice and understanding to bring these characteristics into the classroom. It is awareness of these characteristics over time that inspires students to emulate them. It is the emulation of these characteristics by students that makes them good students.

The process of teaching cannot be divorced from these over the long term, although they are commonly ignored over the short term. Bullying, dominance and abusiveness are common traits in teachers. These teachers do not produce good students, not for moral reasons but for practical reasons. The methods of teaching taijiquan gong fu undeniably rely on trust in the teacher. The path to taijiquan skill is not intuitive and if the student does not trust the teacher then taijiquan skill will not be gained.

Most students are not that interested in ‘What is taijiquan?’ but want to ‘get on with it’ whatever ‘it’ is. In my experience, students need to be led to understanding what taijiquan is, slowly and methodically. Most would be students come with a flawed understanding and commonly an erroneous understanding e.g. the ‘supreme ultimate fighting art,’ or ‘a panacea for all ills.’

The history of taijiquan is easy to read but it does not explain what taijiquan is. Few articles or books do.

It is my experience that students make most progress when provided with the most appropriate amount of information. Too much information is considerably more detrimental than too little. A little information, provided in several ways and in several contexts most commonly leads to understanding.

We all have our own take on how things are. We remember not what we saw but we decided to see. For most students to grasp ideas correctly they must have many opportunities in an atmosphere that promotes learning. 

Students gain understanding in three steps.

  1. They understand through their eyes by seeing something. This step may take many occurrences before the student recognises what is happening. 
  2. They understand in their minds when what they have seen is explained sufficiently well for them to grasp it intellectually. This second step may take many explanations, particularly for complex ideas.
  3. They understand with their body after considerable practice.

The proportion of time required for each of these three processes is around 1% for the first step, 4% for the second step and 95% for the third step. The amount of time spent on each activity in the class needs to reflect this if success is to be achieved.

Suggestions on ‘What to Teach’

1. Strength without Stiffness

Perhaps the best first step for beginner taijiquan students is the understanding that their bodies are stiff. To do this I initially state this unequivocally. I say something like “people are much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, stiffer than they realise.” During this delivery I explain that strength and stiffness are commonly assumed as linked together but that taijiquan teaches its students how to use their bodies without stiffness. I then show students what a loose body is. (See video clip ‘Loose body demonstration’ as an example.)

I show these types of demonstration on several occasions through my opening classes until it is clear to all the people in the room that it is possible to be strong and not stiff. (Please note these are not taijiquan demonstrations, nor are they style specific, they are looseness demonstrations.)

2. Loosening Exercises

My suggestions for loosening exercises have already been listed else where on this website (Beginner’s Loosening Exercises and Warm Up Exercises) so I will not repeat myself. I will note that many teachers do not understand how these exercises work. They learned blindly and lead blindly. They do not observe how their students do these types of exercises and so do not correct them. A student who has a particular stiffness will be apparent in the loosening exercises. If the student knew they were stiff they would try and do something about it. Recognising and correcting that stiffness is the responsibility of the teacher.

3. Practicing

Teach ‘practicing.’ Talk about. Do in the class. Practice for the students. Practice with the students. Encourage practice in all ways. What ever you do, do lots of it. Lead students to the realisation that practice really does make perfect, or at least lead to improvement.

4. Choreography

In the beginning, keep it short! There are many ‘short’ forms available in all styles. Generally speaking if it takes more than 3-6 months to learn as a beginner it is too long. For me, choreography is less important to beginners than loosening the body and understanding the simplest body mechanics or shen fa of taijiquan. Choreography is not a goal in itself but is a stepping stone to gaining skill and understanding. That being said, it is my experience that most students have an expectation of learning ‘a form.’ Also beginning students are more far more likely to practice a piece of form rather than some exercises (if they practice at all!)

Suggestions on ‘How to Teach’

Given the inherent difficulty in both mental comprehension and physical achievement required, I suggest four basic steps:

  1. makes things simple
  2. use multiple methodologies to achieve one goal
  3. practice multiple repetitions
  4. lead by example.

Simple Steps

Simple steps are easier to grasp. Determine what the simple steps in taijiquan are. Teach these until everyone understands what they are and can do them. By ‘simple steps’ I mean the simplest body mechanic’s skills that are required in taijiquan. For example:

  1. standing upright
  2. Turning the waist horizontally / left to right
  3. Turning the waist vertically / forwards to backwards
  4. Turning the waist side to side / left side up right side down
  5. Flexing the middle spine area (between the shoulder blades)
  6. Opening and closing the hips
  7. Sinking the shoulder
  8. Shifting weight without leaning
  9. Stepping without falling
  10. Stretching the arms without stiffening etc

Some of these will not be achievable until the student understands that their movement is prevented by stiffness. So loosening exercise should start with the student recognising that they are stiff and understanding how to learn to loosen this area by practicing the appropriate loosening exercise.

Breakdown exercises and movements and explain the basics. Practice the basics e.g. stepping without falling, until everyone understands what this is.

When the basics are understood and able to be executed, then combine two basic skills. If the body needs to shift weight and turn, then practice these two skills separately (i.e. Skill 1: shifting weight and Skill 2: turning.) Only when both of these are accomplished with some degree of skill should the two skills be combined together. In this way, complex things can be systematically built up until they are within the student’s grasp.

Multiple Methodologies

Most of my students do not learn the way I did. (The way I learned was horribly inefficient.) They do not practice the amount that I practiced as a beginner. Expecting them to be the same as me is a path to teaching failure. Not everyone learns in the same way. I find that having four or five different teaching methods for each skill gives me the best return in the form of beginner’s gaining skills for my teaching. Each method has different exercises and uses different language. For example, trying to teach people to loosen their lower back/waist so it can turn vertically, I might use any or all of the following phrases:

- loosen the lower back,

- relax the lower back,

- slump the lower back,

- bow the lower back,

- feel like beginning to sit down,

- feel like your bottom is going to fall down in your trousers,

with each piece of language helping a different minded student.  Generally I use less methods for easier skills, more methods for more difficult skills. I always use multiple methods. I spread the provision of these various teaching methods over several weeks so there is less confusion.

Multiple Repetitions

Repetition without being boring is in my experience the easiest way to convey material. Humour definitely helps. Practice repeatedly with the students. Think how many repetitions you gauge they need and then double it. In the beginning, teaching adults, multiple repetition of low effort is required to change body mechanics effectively and permanently. For children or with athletes it can be taught differently if the correct motivation is there.

My experience is that it is common for new teachers to forge ahead with an excessive amount of choreography. (The cause of this most commonly appears to be an urge in the teacher to demonstrate their competence to their students, not an urge in the student to have more material.) An unfortunate side effect of this type of teaching is that those students who manage to keep up with material, (usually those whose athletic ability allows them to copy choreography quickly,) become form junkies, learning lots of forms and understanding little or nothing of taijiquan.

Lead by example

My suggestion to teachers is to have a judicious mix of student observation (10%) and practice (90%.) Practice with the students repeatedly. Perhaps lead the students through a posture 10 or more times. Find creative ways to do this: maybe rotate every student, (or every two students if the class size is large,) to the middle of the front row where they can do the posture immediately behind you. When all the students in the room have copied you say ten times, observe them a few times. Make corrections. Do the posture again and see if the correction has improved the movement. Lead the students to an acceptance of repetitious practice until they can find the benefits that accrue from it themselves.


Nick Gudge is a student of Wang Hai Jun and teaches Chen style taijiquan (tai chi) classes in Limerick.


Other Teaching Taijiquan Articles you might be interested in:

Teaching Taijiquan 1 – Some Observations and Analysis (2 page article)

Teaching Taijiquan 2 – Motivation & Progress (2 page article)

Teaching Taijiquan 4 – Why does it commonly not work (1 page article)

Teaching Taijiquan 5 - Effective Teaching Methods (1 page article)

Teacher’s Training Outline (3 page article)

Six Stages of Training Taijiquan Skill (4 page article)

A Good Teacher (6 page article)

Good Understanding (3 page article)

Good Practice (3 page article)


More detailed technical information can be found in the first two parts of my four part series

Gaining Taijiquan Skill – Part 1: Theory (10 page article)

Gaining Taijiquan Skill – Part 2: Beginning – reaching Level 1 (10 page article)