Let me start by saying that learning tai chi from a book, video, or teacher is one of the most charged topics within the tai chi community. Practitioners endlessly debate the benefits of teachers, styles and methods. You have groups that are incensed by the mere idea of learning tai chi from a book. On the other hand you have people who credit pursuing forms or information that they found in a book or video as their initial catalyst for progress.
Anyone can learn tai chi from a book or video and many advanced practitioners credit a book or video for introducing them to tai chi. As a general rule, learning the basics of the tai chi form and establishing a practice can easily be accomplished on your own. To progress to a higher level, most practitioners attend workshops or find a teacher.
Let’s unravel the benefits and criticisms of learning tai chi from a book or video. Hopefully by the end you will share my opinion that both are necessary. What is unnecessary is the argument itself because it is contributing to negativity that is keeping tai chi inaccessible to the masses.
Argument 1: There is no way to learn tai chi from a book or by watching a video.
Their thoughts go like this:
“There is no way that you can learn the true essence of tai chi without having a teacher. You miss out on all of the subtleties, your moves are empty and there is no one to correct you. Eventually you grow so frustrated you quit OR you finally see real tai chi and have to abandon everything you thought you knew. ”
Argument 2: You can learn tai chi from a book or online resources.
This side might say:
“Tai chi IS self-study. You learn a movement and derive personal meaning from it. If you want to see “empty movements” walk into any tai chi class and see A) any student who has been practicing for less than 6 months and B) any student who believes their teacher is great when he is actually only just figuring things out for himself. Why not try it out and learn how to have your own mind. Then, if you are truly interested, seek out a class and begin to make an investment of time and money.”
Who is right?
Most great schools and teachers have direct lineage and/or experience working with someone who had demonstrable skills. It is true that direct teaching through class or workshop rockets someone’s progress forward. On the other hand, the number of books and videos on tai chi proliferates and many are written and produced by great teachers. Why would they bother to write a book if they believed that there was no way to transmit their knowledge? Secondly, we have records of tai chi dating back 2000 years specifically because it was transmitted through writing.
Neither side is right or both sides are right depending on your degree of optimism or pessimism.
First, we need a place to start from.
What the “No Books or Video!!” crowd may not tell you is how they heard about tai chi in the first place. Here is a great ABOUT US paragraph taken from the website ww.taichido.com. In full disclosure I do not know Mark Allen, the author, but it appears that he has been practicing a long time, publishes on tai chi, and therefore has helped many people along the way. He writes:
“I started practicing tai chi in 1995, primarily from a variety of ‘how to’ books. On a pivotal day in 1996, I saw an advert for local tai chi classes run by Ray Wood, a 7th Dan Kyushindo (plus more Dans for other martial arts) and I decided to go along. One of the first things that Ray did to this new class was to demonstrate Part One of the Long Yang Form, and I realised very quickly that I could either walk away and ‘pretend’ to do tai chi with my book, or I could forget everything I thought I knew.”
Then we have an interest and seek out more information on the topic.
What the “No Books or Video!!” side may also not tell you is how much they read. Yes their reading may have come after they have practiced for a while. This actually gives their argument credit. If you are to practice first before learning from resources then your comprehension might be better.
What is the best book on tai chi?
The best book on tai chi is hard to define. If you look on Amazon you will see that there are a lot of books on tai chi. The answer depends on where you are in your study and what style you have chosen to practice. There are two categories of books. There are books on specific styles and books on general aspects on tai chi. You can limit the first search to your style and the second to what you are most interested in at this point.
Follow your Instinct
If you are interested in the history of tai chi start there. Martial application? Qi Gong? Energy flow? Improving your Health? You get the point. All information will enhance your progress. What is important is that you continue to read or study because the impact of your increasing knowledge is like the impact of your practice. It is all cumulative.
Access to top resources are limited
A tai chi school does not exist in every city on earth. Yet, everyone can benefit from tai chi. I am not adopting a teacher-free stance. Anyone who does not have access to a teacher should invest money (that is not being spent on class) on a workshop in a nearby city because your progress will explode. However, the absence of a teacher does not equate to the absence of pursuit. Do not deny yourself the benefit of practicing this art form.
Self-practice is mandatory
Regardless of whether you have a teacher or school or do not, progress is extremely limited if you are only practicing in the hour or so that you attend class in a week. I see a difference between new students who arrive “to check out tai chi” and then stay and students who “worked out with a friend or used a book/video” and now wanted to find a class. The second group sometimes has an advantage initially because they have already developed a self-practice and come back making gains every week.
Can you learn tai chi from a book or video?
It would be difficult to learn tai chi exclusively from a book. However, many have used books as a catalyst for their progress or as a continual way to deepen their knowledge. Here is a list of our favorite tai chi books. If you are learning tai chi on your own then a good video is critical to get the movements in order. These are the best to get you started.