How to Choose Tai Chi Classes – What to Expect, What to Bring, What to Pay

How to Choose Tai Chi Classes – What to Expect, What to Bring, What to Pay

I honestly believe the world would be a better place if more people attended tai chi classes. I know that my health and happiness are off the charts for my age and this is related to 20+ years practicing and teaching. But I also know I quit a few times at the beginning because I got in with the wrong tai chi schools, felt like I was wasting my time, and definitely was spending too much money.

Tai chi classes can be found in most major cities or a person can take tai chi online classes. Long-time practitioners reported that factors influencing how they chose a tai chi class included cost, distance or ability to attend, community, and the ability to see progress.

For every one of me that made tai chi a habit I am sure there are another 19 who got the wrong impression and didn’t continue. That’s my goal here. With a bit of knowledge on cost, what to look for in a class, and what to expect, there is a greater chance that you will add tai chi to your life. This way you, your health, and all of us that come into contact with you on a daily basis will benefit.

If you are beginning at tai chi, how do you know what a good tai chi school is?

Suggestions surrounding how to choose tai chi classes usually prioritize “finding a good teacher.”  We see a lot of holes in this argument.  Here’s why:

  • Tai chi isn’t as common as soccer. Anyone could say they are good but how does a new person know?
  • What is available in your neck of the woods? There might be a really good teacher nearby but they get skipped over because they don’t compare to people on YouTube.
  • Martial artists are highly opiniated. For example, in Houston, Texas (USA) I know four tai chi schools that are really top notch. If you ask a student from one school about the other three, they normally say the other three are terrible!

This preconceived notion of needing a “good teacher” reduces the number of people actually practicing tai chi because the bar is set too high. What is important? A tai chi school that is a good match for you can introduce you to good material, people with like interests, and connect you with the many teachers who are traveling and giving workshop classes throughout the world. Also, as basic as this sounds, finding a tai chi school that is affordable for you, geographically close, and with people you like to hang out with means you are more likely to keep practicing long enough to learn the form and start getting the benefits from tai chi.

Here are some general guidelines when looking into tai chi classes:

  • Attend a class and participate without paying.  Attending a class will let you meet your future classmates, understand the class style and pace, and assure that the commute (traffic!) make your attendance possible.  Some classes, such as workshops and university classes cannot be attended ahead of time.  These normally have a fixed short timeframe so a short commitment is reasonable.
  • Decide if health, flexibility, or martial applications interest you the most.  Tai chi contains both health and martial benefits but a school’s philosophy can determine what percentage of the curriculum is spent on either or both.
  • Do you like the people and atmosphere?  Let’s face it, our time is precious.  Interactions in a martial arts school can be extremely rewarding and fun.  You can learn more from an average teacher in a humble environment than from a good teacher in a bad environment.  The bragging/infighting will bother you, your attendance will fall off and unless you find another school then the martial arts community will lose another great addition – you.  For example, a student of mine was moving to a small community and he asked my opinion on the tai chi schools in town.  I contacted them and actually suggested that he attend a Judo school.  Why? The people were great and kind, it was fairly priced and their eastern focus (inclusion of culture and respect) had all the benefits that a martial arts school should entail.  He has since joined a new tai chi school but remained training and invested in his development for those two years.
  • For tai chi online classes you need to ask some specific questions:
    • Are the movements something I can accomplish?
    • Are there people even in the online classes that look like me?
    • Is the tai chi online class broken into segments?

Don’t sweat it in the beginning!

The truth is that most people that have developed tai chi skills began in a mediocre tai chi school. There is so much to learn that just learning the basics is worthwhile if you find a tai chi class you like that is close by. Worthwhile means that you are enjoying yourself, learning something, and socializing with great people.  You will learn to recognize people who are truly skilled and know if your instruction is good down the road. If you are new, here are six questions to ask in your first class.

tai chi class outside

What is a Tai Chi Class Like?

All classes are very different but there are some general rules for what a good tai chi class is like. Classes should start with stretching and warm ups that are designed to get your body moving in tai chi’s unique way.

Tai chi lessons should include “drills” which is a fancy way of saying: take parts of the form to practice independently. These can include doing single moves repeatedly, often called silk reeling. It can include tai chi walking or practicing the energies in the tai chi movements.

Most of the class is spent on learning the tai chi form. In the best classes, everyone does all or most of the form together and then you break into groups that have learned different parts and you work together on your moves. Additionally tai chi lessons can focus on push hands, martial applications, calligraphy, and even weapons forms.

Tai chi online classes are a bit different. They usually begin with an overview, show the entire form and then teach in video segments. The best tai chi online classes have both a social component, as well as videos that are recorded that you can refer back to.

How Much Do Tai Chi Classes Cost?

tai chi sword workshops cost $200-300

Each year, most of the tai chi schools in our area get together for World Tai Chi & Qigong Day. I informally polled teachers asking what their tai chi classes cost and there was quite a big range. Some sold $10 punch cards per class. The average cost of tai chi classes was from $50-$150 per month. The price difference was partly related to how many classes were available each week so the larger tai chi schools were able to charge more.

A second option that we will talk about below is to attend workshops of Masters and Grand Masters visiting from China. A 3-day workshop can cost $200-$300 and have between 3 to 5 3-hour sessions. I did this for about five years when I lived in a town without instruction. I drove to a nearby city who hosted instructors from Chen Village about every 6 months. The level of instruction was so high and there was so much material presented that you needed half a year to digest it all. I met a few people through the workshop and we would practice in a park between visits.

If someone asks for your credit card to “try a class” that is not a good sign. There is too much variability and you really need to try it out. Many ta chi schools let you take a class for free. If they as for $5-$15, totally fine but otherwise ask to attend or watch a class for free.

Can You Learn from Tai Chi Online Classes?

If you have been looking around you’ve probably seen that there are free online tai chi classes and a staggering number of tai chi videos on YouTube. I am hopeful for a future where we can all learn tai chi online for free but as for now I don’t think it’s possible. It’s not that the tai chi online is bad, but you never get full instruction or corrections so it is extremely difficult to get the benefits of tai chi. Here’s what I think tai chi videos on YouTube are good for: they introduce people to tai chi and get them interested enough to go find a class. Sorry, I wish I could tell you something different.

On the other hand, attending a tai chi online class that goes for a certain number of weeks, has a real instructor, has real classmates (Session-mates), and potentially a way to ask questions is a real possibility. Here’s my thinking around this. For years I have had people come to attend our live class after having been introduced to tai chi online. I am happy they found tai chi and made it to my class. After the pandemic, I started to get more students who attended “live” with couldn’t teach in person so they offered a tai chi online class. These students learned well and when they started in the class they were more like to pick up where they left off. someone who took their teaching tai chi

Are There Any Tai Chi Schools In My Area?

Here’s the easy part. There are only three places you need to look to find tai chi classes near you. Search online for Tai Chi Classes + Your City and let Google and Yelp do the work for you. Additionally, there are often really good classes at recreation centers or as community college classes. These don’t always come up in searches because those two places don’t advertise well.

What if There Are Not Any Tai Chi Schools in My Area?  Try This.

tai chi lessons in park

All hope is not lost if you live in a small community. There are many ways that people are developing great tai chi abilities that range from the exciting and expensive to the affordable and close by.

  • Take a trip and study in China.
  • Study with someone who taught or practiced in China.
  • Find tai chi classes near you.
  • Attend a weekend seminar with a master and practice between seminars.
  • Form an informal group or association so you have someone to practice with (then attend a seminar or buy an online course together).
  • Take tai chi online classes. For many of us, this is the best combination of low expense and high instruction. If you find someone to practice with you are more likely to continue and get more out of it. Here are three really good virtual tai chi classes.

What Do You Wear for Your First Tai Chi Classes?

This is such a common question that I wrote separate articles on what to wear for a tai chi class and what kind of shoes to buy. But this is for people who are already attending. If you are trying out a class, just wear something comfortable. You will need to bend and stretch and may sweat a bit. Tai chi is not like other martial arts who have strict uniform codes. And the only thing you need to bring to tai chi class is water! If someone asks you to buy a uniform or shirt on the first night, this is also not a good sign.

Maintaining Progress in Your Tai Chi Classes

So many benefits have been ascribed to tai chi that it captivates the interest of nearly everyone.  However, we lose a lot of students who start off highly dedicated and then stop practicing.   So what happens?  Let’s start with some reasons that attendance is important and then talk about ways to increase involvement of practitioners.

A few simple insights can sustain great development in you, your classmates, or your students.

Why increase the number of tai chi practitioners or why keep practicing?

  • Increased number of practitioners globally:  Not to sound too Pollyanna but by practicing tai chi we are contributing to a global sense of community and wellbeing.  If you are thinking “Meanwhile, back on earth…” and are not yet at a place where that is conceivable, it can’t hurt right?
  • Deeper development of Tai Chi in the U.S.: The more advanced as a group we become, the better instruction we receive in visits from China.  I have already seen a shift in workshop content from the basics to more advanced topics at times.
  • The bottom line:  We could get snarky and say that more students equal more income for a tai chi school which is true.  However, if you are good enough to earn a living from helping people then we would hope that you are compensated and can pay the rent.

How do we sustain the group we work out with or make it grow?

The following information comes from multiple teachers and from a survey that I conducted with my students.  Attendance of a free community class was low or intermittent. I was reluctant to do a survey because I feared the answers but it was the perfect opportunity because pricing was not part of the equation.  I was happy to learn that much of the concerns were things that I could easily fix.

Creating Progress in Tai Chi Schools

  • Celebrate completions: Completion of a Qi Gong Set or a Tai Chi Form goes a long ways.   And there should be some reward for it (applause?  T-shirt?).  In tai chi we don’t typically have a belt system so marking progress in tai chi is more nebulous.  Dedicated practitioners often hate the idea of belts because belts don’t equate to progress.  Many tai chi practitioners gravitated away from other martial arts for this very reason but the Japanese and Korean system might have something to teach here.  I would never advocate a belt system for tai chi but the human intellect still likes to know that they are moving in the right direction.
  • Make it Physical: No, this is not cross-fit but after 20 years of athletics, weight lifting, and a stint in the military, some of the most grueling workouts I have experienced were in tai chi private lessons with Grand Masters.  When my student’s thighs are sore from proper pole-standing or they break a sweat they are gratified (and asked for more!).  Internal strength takes a while to develop and be sensitive to.  Our society craves feedback and light fatigue and sweating is sometimes expected after “activity.”
  • Ask about injuries: Have your students tell you about injuries or tell your teacher about yours. Tai chi and specifically the silk reeling sets have movements to cure and strengthen injuries.  I invite students to share and when I can fix it we both are pleased.  I have a friend who fixed the posture of a professional bass player, eliminating hours of pain, and gaining a long-term student.
  • Share resources:  The water cooler conversations include tons of topics that you have probably read in tai chi magazine, books, or seen online.  Print those for the next class and bring them in.

I was extremely proud the first time I brought a student through the Chen long form at our tai chi school.  It reminded me of an artist I heard talk of the importance of his first $50 sale.  When one practitioner advances we all do, and that includes society as a whole.

Scott Prath

Scott has been practicing and teaching tai chi and qigong since 2000. He is a lead instructor for the Austin Chen Tai Chi Association. His interest in the internal martial arts began after traveling in India and Nepal, and he has since traveled to China to train. Scott has published over 100 articles on tai chi with a focus on research showing the benefits of practicing.

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