My start with tai chi was rocky at best. After several years in another martial art I was introduced to tai chi near my university and was totally absorbed. I liked the class and people a lot and was totally committed to learning the form. A year or so in however, I met practitioners of another style and quickly realized that my tai chi instructor was not teaching the correct form and it was mediocre tai chi at best. I spent some time mad that I had been scammed and wasted time. Worse yet, I mischaracterized the entire style as being useless and not “real tai chi” for a while.
In hindsight, that instructor was doing the best that he could and was trying to get a business off the ground. He brought in other instructors who taught workshops so he wasn’t opposed to learning and admitted his own limitations. But what if I had begun learning correctly from the beginning? All tai chi instructors are at different levels but how do you choose one that is far enough down the path in front of you so you can benefit from their knowledge?
Becoming a tai chi instructor requires being able to demonstrate a high level of skill but does not require a certification. As a general rule, to teach tai chi an instructor needs several years of experience, continual access to a teacher or other practitioners from the same lineage, knowledge of the purpose and movements of the forms, history, and martial application.
From my experience and the teachers I have known across time, it is clear that there are certain things that great instructors have in common with how they developed their skills and teaching. These are also great ways for a student to identify a great teacher and to know if what they learn will help them develop their tai chi.
Let’s organize these into a sort-of checklist for you to find a great teacher and even become one yourself!
I am going to refrain from suggesting any specific teacher or online program because my intention is to attract more people to tai chi which inevitably means needing more people to teach it. For everyone that has had an amazing experience with a school or teacher, there will be another person who has not. Instead, use the criteria below to begin your own journey to finding a great class or begin teaching.
How to Become a Great Tai Chi Instructor
One of the main reasons that tai chi has spread and proliferated to such a great degree is also one of its greatest criticisms: Anyone can become a tai chi instructor. While there are lineages that people are a part of, there is not a board certification. The result is that there are numerous great tai chi instructors without a certification. There are also numerous certified tai chi instructors who are not representing the art in a way that enables students to make progress.
So what do we do with the two sides of this problem? How does an art open its doors to be shared, largely voluntarily, by anyone who heeds the call to teach? At the same time, how does it ensure that great teaching occurs? Because that is the crux of it. When tai chi instructors pass down the correct information, students benefit from the art. The benefitting itself causes people to continue to practice and opt to teach – for milenia.
There are a handful of ways that a student can identify a great tai chi instructor that will help them meet their mental, physical, and even spiritual goals. These are also the same ideas that can guide anyone who wants to teach to be able to continue to develop themselves and represent the curriculum truthfully.
Interact with Other Tai Chi Instructors
Great teachers of tai chi have a network. This can be a direct lineage to their teacher and other members of the same style. In cities it can be a community of tai chi instructors from any style. The art gives plenty of opportunity to interact on Chinese festival days or things like World Tai Chi Qigong Day. In the smallest of towns instructors can interact with the many online communities.
There is also the opportunity for workshops. The best tai chi instructors go to related workshops and even bring their students along. This means they risk being corrected or “schooled” by a visiting master. You shouldn’t fear this. It demonstrates openness to learn and humility.
Red Flag: Be wary of a tai chi instructor that talks badly about every other school in town, has not attended any event, private lesson, or visited his or her teacher since the dawn of time. I understand that there are financial conflicts or risks of students from different schools interacting, but teachers shouldn’t be operating in a vacuum.
Great Tai Chi Instructors Teach a Specific Lineage
There are five main families of tai chi and several credible offshoots. Each of these styles have hundreds of years of development behind it. Students can interact with practitioners of the same style online or in person, can find books and videos, and can even attend a workshop. When you get too far afield or if the instructor has modified the form for some obscure reason the students’ progress will most likely be watered down.
Note that at advanced levels all tai chi instructors modify the form to give it their own “flavor.” I have attended workshops for seven different Chen style masters, all who were teaching the long form (Lao Jia Yi LU). Each had their own focus and modifications of certain moves. My understanding is that their experience and knowledge of the form led to advancements that they wanted to accentuate. Their experience, heritage, lineage, awards, and status makes this completely acceptable.
Red Flag: Be wary of a style with a name that is not even searchable. Be wary of a class that teaches a style but it does not look like anything you have seen anywhere online or in person. Unknowing teachers aren’t necessarily trying to be sneaky or do this on purpose. Maybe they teach other martial arts in their school and tai chi is just one class. It could have strayed from its origin because of a lack of focus. That is fine, just not fine for a student that wants to make progress with tai chi.
They Discuss What Tai Chi Is, Not What Tai Chi Isn’t
I have to get up on my soapbox for this one because it truly makes me sad. I get so excited to go to tai chi events to interact with other practitioners and tai chi instructors. There are so few of us and it is so nice to stand in the same room together and talk about what interests us, hear what is going on in the world of tai chi, and learn from each other.
Red Flag: Inevitably there is a subset of this room that complains about how bad the state of tai chi is. This includes deriding other teachers about (and I am quoting here) being airy-fairy, hippy, teaching strip-mall tai chi, not being hard enough, not teaching like the old days, being too mystical… The list goes on and on.
This is a thinly veiled attempt to say “I am better” or to separate themselves from something they are embarrassed about. Maybe they are getting older, which is fine. Maybe their school doesn’t have the success or number of students they want and they are blaming someone else’s marketing. The truth is that all good teachers talk about what to do or what they are doing and put themselves out there for critique.
The truth is that tai chi is many things. It is physical health, mental health, wellness, history, culture and there is so much needed positive discussion that the derisive comments are a waste of time and actually turn students away.
They are Invested in Continual Learning
Good tai chi instructors either have direct access to their lineage, they have interactions and access to their original teacher, or they attend workshops even from different styles. They can also cross-train with other martial artists or in other things like yoga to test their skills. This can be testing their martial skills, testing their balance or posture, or even their focus and mental acuity.
Here are some examples. It was about 15 years into my practice when I finally sat into a deep stance correctly. I got there by learning how to powerlift with a friend. Turns out it’s not that I wasn’t flexible enough, I wasn’t trusting my leg muscles to sink into the stance. I realized how I was holding tension in my lower back by grappling with a Japanese Jiu Jitsu group. I learned about how the large bones of the body promote white blood cell growth to support our health and that this is supported by standing meditation by researching to help a student with her Fibromyalgia. It doesn’t matter what it is, just learn.
They Have Interest or Specific Knowledge, Which Can Include a Limitation
Let’s face it, we all have our favorite rabbit holes. Great tai chi instructors bring some of their interests into their teaching. My class co-teacher has a math background and his ability to precisely remember moves and sequences is staggering. My job includes specific knowledge on physiology and brain science and my interest on how tai chi relates to these two studies is where I naturally go.
Some of the best instructors have dealt with traumatic events or are managing them. They bring specific insight into how tai chi can help arthritis, back injuries, knee injuries or even just aging gracefully. There are even tai chi instructors who are overweight! This is often a joke but think about it, what other sport has overweight people? Almost none, they have to quit. While tai chi practitioners are working on their weight, don’t you think that they are happier, more mobile, and more social than sedentary people? Own your narrative and explore it while you teach.
The Best Tai Chi Instructors Represent Themselves Truthfully
This last mark of a great tai chi instructor brings into question who can teach and when they can start.
At what point can a person start teaching tai chi? Is there a time limit?
There is a basic knowledge of the forms, history, and intention that is needed to teach tai chi. Quite honestly, the most dedicated teacher I knew that could demonstrate skills still needed three years before he could accurately share what he knew. While there is no hard and fast rule there is something more important at play: You can teach if you can represent yourself truthfully.
It’s pretty simple, you admit to where your development is and invite people to join you who know less than you do. We are all constantly developing so setting a goal of learning for a number of years is kind of absurd. If you can accurately represent the style and have personally benefited physically, mentally, and spiritually, you can consider teaching. I use spiritually here as having a positive disposition and learning to respond gracefully to what life throws at you, not in a religious sense.
I will have martial artists with several years or even decades of experience join my class and they are direct and challenging from the first minute wanting to make sure I am “legit” as one person put it. I let them know that I am glad they are here and that there are several longtime practitioners in the class. In all honesty I look forward to having their experience benefit the class.
I tell them to join the class for free and they will know pretty quickly if I have something to contribute to their journey. If I am ahead of them in certain aspects, learn from me. If we are equals, let’s train together. If their learning surpasses mine in certain aspects such as historical knowledge or martial application, please share.
I am proud of the class we have built because we retain 20+ year martial arts practitioners as well as brand new people. It’s a fun, symbiotic learning environment that people look forward to which I think is the basis for our school’s success.
There are three more topics related to starting, joining or leading a tai chi or qigong class to help you get up and running.