If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. - Ursula K. LeGuin

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Why I Teach...Tai Chi

So there have been a number of posts in the academic blogging world on why people teach what it is they do teach. Reading these posts and their resulting comments, I can't help but spend some time thinking about why I teach at all and why I teach what it is I do teach. Profgrrrrl has a particularly interesting one up today that covers a lot of my feelings on why I teach (or rather why I enjoy teaching) my academic classes. I don't feel the need to add much more to that subject here but would rather discuss why I teach tai chi, which provides nothing for my career and brings me no money whatsoever.

I have been studying martial arts (Japanese karate, weapons, and tai chi) since I was 16 and belonged to a dojo where teaching was part of the learning process. So I spent many years teaching individuals, small groups, and full classes. After my relocation to Big Town/Small City, I found a new dojo and have been taking classes in a different but similar style of karate as a student. My status as a Black Belt provides me with opportunities to teach in the dojo but I am not committed to teaching. This commitment, or rather lack of it, is a big issue with me.

This dojo does not teach the "gentler" arts, such as tai chi (most don't and wouldn't). However as my time here in BT/SC grows people have begun requesting that I teach a class in tai chi and chi gung exercises. I have started a Sunday morning class but at this point it consists of only people who I feel I can cancel on in a moment's notice (my own b, and good friends of ours). You see as much as I love teaching, I love it while I am teaching (and many times prepping). Knowing that certain hours of my week are committed to being in the classroom (or dojo) and that others are counting on me being there often seems burdensome. Pretty much everything else in my life can be rearranged or done at a different time and although I'm actually quite good at following a schedule, it is other people's expectations that I'll be there and "up" to teaching that can get to me by the end of a semester. So creating another situation where this happens for no other reason than the love of teaching has made me hesitant. However it has become clear that I'm not about to drop the class now that I've started it and I am excited at the thought of adding more students. All of this has been a lot of background to get to why teaching tai chi is important to me.

I teach tai chi because it is a very simple set of movements that are extremely difficult to master. It requires a great deal of concentration and effort to learn the form and people often get tense as they struggle with the movements. The form should be done relaxed and as a moving meditation. This means learning tai chi is a contradiction and I enjoy helping students try to achieve a balance between their efforts and the reality of the form.

I teach tai chi because it is done slowly. People in our society are used to speed. Teaching and learning karate can often be fun because there is a lot of high energy output and movements done incorrectly but quickly don't look or feel as wrong as movements done slowly. Teaching people to move slow and to learn slow is, I think, extremely beneficial to all aspects of their lives. It accounts for a large part of the frustration in learning the form but provides greater rewards when achieved.

I teach tai chi because doing tai chi helps people become aware of their bodies in a way most of us are not. Most people, I believe, live dichotomously--their minds separated from their bodies--and they do not fully understand the actions of their bodies. Tai chi brings unity and it is amazing to watch a student discover what it is like to fully live in his/her body. Tai chi does not bring weight loss or "tone" or any other beautification outcome, so this awareness and appreciation is for one's body as it is, not as one wishes it to be. I think this is very important.

I teach tai chi because every student is a puzzle that must be figured out. I have to use my knowledge, imagination, empathy and ingenuity to discover how a student needs to be approached while recognizing the approach may have to changed as the student advances and new issues arise. I have to do this for each individual while still creating a sense of the class as a whole. I do not find any difference between doing this in tai chi and doing this as a teacher in the classroom. However tai chi brings the point home more visually.

I teach tai chi because it feels good to do tai chi. Many "exercise programs" can cause pain and/or fatigue. Initially you may feel good from the endorphin release and you may also enjoy the following muscle ache that proves you've worked hard, but tai chi leaves you feeling alert, comfortable, relaxed, and good about yourself. Tai chi is not the only activity to do this but it does always do it. Many students I've taught are people who do not regularly exercise and tai chi is very doable for them and gives them a sense of wellbeing after a class that makes them want to come back for more. As a teacher you always feel good when students are eager for the next class.

Most interesting to me is that as I teach a class my students can often look unhappy or uncomfortable throughout the class. This, I've learned to realize, is the look of deep concentration. Yet as soon as the class is over they appear happy yet calm, they float but don't buzz, and they are always thankful for the lesson.


Hilaire said...

This is a lovely post. I really enjoyed reading about what it's like to teach somethigng physical.

Amanda said...

I really loved this post. I think that it's true that most of us separate our minds from our bodies. I know that when I run I'm not concentrating on my movements or anything. I'm thinking about everything but that. It's great that you have allowed other people the opportunity to unite the two.