How to Start Tai Chi – 6 Questions to Ask in Your First Class

How to Start Tai Chi – 6 Questions to Ask in Your First Class

questions to ask when getting started with tai chi

You’ve heard about tai chi! Maybe you met someone who practices and got interested. Maybe you heard about the health benefits. Or maybe you saw a demonstration in town or online. Now, you are in the right place if you are wondering how to start tai chi for yourself.

As a general rule, a successful start to tai chi depends on identifying your own personal goals, making sure the class activities match your level of fitness, and making sure the time investment, cost, and commute are acceptable so that you keep making progress.

How to Start Tai Chi – Questions for Choosing and Attending a Class

I think most people start off asking questions about what style they should study or even what they should wear. These questions are sort of important but in the end, don’t really impact how a person finds a tai chi class that is the right fit for them. Instead, I am going to take you through the questions I ask a person when they are trying out a class for the first time or just observing for the night. These six questions will get you started on the right foot. After you have answered these questions, there are also six considerations for beginning your first class.

What is your goal for starting tai chi?

There are so many benefits to practicing tai chi and just doing the form will improve your life in many unique ways. However, if you have a specific goal, you will need to communicate this with your teacher so that he or she can help you focus on it during the tai chi form or with additional practice. Here are the top reasons people try tai chi:

  • Improve balance
  • Improve posture and relatedly, reduce pain from bad posture
  • Increase energy
  • Become more physically active
  • Improve relaxation and reduce stress
  • Improve mental health and outlook on life
  • Improve flexibility
  • Join a community to be more social
  • Looking for an activity they can do if they have pain, restricted movement, or low energy

Does the focus of the class match your goal?

Tai chi is a single art form but there are dozens of different ways a class can be structured. Firstly, the biggest distinction is between how much a class focuses on the martial aspects or the health aspects. Most classes do a little of both but some classes weigh heavily on the health side and don’t talk about martial applications at all. On the other hand, styles like Chen do push hands and talk about the marital applications for each move. This is a great question to ask the teacher and something to watch for if you are observing a class.

Secondly, does the class curriculum match your goal? Many tai chi classes only teach the tai chi form and do not teach any weapons forms. Some classes additionally teach qigong which is a form of standing or moving meditation. An instructor usually makes these decisions based on what they have learned and what their interests are.

getting started with tai chi at a workshop
Finishing a Workshop with Master Chen Huixian

Are you a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner?

Tai chi can be challenging if you have never had sports experience or did most of your learning through books. Learning movements challenges the brain in unique ways which is great for cognitive development at any age. Knowing whether you learn better by seeing something, hearing about it, or moving your body will help you communicate with the teacher so that you keep learning.

I have students who are heavy visual learners and they ask if they can make a video of me doing the portion they are learning. Or they set a camera up at the end of class for themselves and record what they just learned. These are both really good strategies for visual learners. Students who are auditory learners should be in the front row in class so they can hear all of the instructions and some even take notes. The kinesthetic learners, especially people with dance experience, have it the easiest.

Are you enjoying the tai chi class?

Everyone is a bit nervous and embarrassed when they start tai chi because the movements are so unusual compared to how we normally move each day. This doesn’t mean it has to be unenjoyable though! You are going to make amazing progress when you are getting started with tai chi if you are having fun and are able to laugh at yourself.

A class should be really fun. Look, you are probably not going to do this professionally and you only have so much free time. Make sure that your hobbies or extracurricular activities bring joy to your life. For you, this might be a very competitive class. For others, this might mean laughing and having a great time the whole night.

Is the workout at the right level for you?

I don’t want to scare you off but a lot of people are surprised at how tired they are after tai chi class in the beginning. It is demanding on the breath system, you are using very different muscles, even if you are in shape, and classes are usually 1-2 hours. It is important to pace yourself and work out at level that is right for you, just like any workout you are doing.

If you are wanting a very easy class because of your age or a very challenging class because you want to get in shape, it is good to know this before going in. YOU WANT to be challenged though so that tai chi can improve your health. So light fatigue is normal. Know that all classes and activities can be adjusted up and down to meet your needs. You just want to get in the right range and attend the right type of class so that you get your health goals met.

Are you able to commit to the tai chi class and commute?

This doesn’t see as important as the other questions but I think it’s maybe the most important question for sticking with tai chi. There are nights that I don’t want to go to practice because I have had a long and busy day and am tired. There are other times I am feeling out of shape and am having trouble getting motivated. Every time I go to class though, I am so happy I did and feel much better.

If my tai chi class was too far away or the wrong time of day, I know I would have skipped more. I would rather a student attend a different class that is more convenient for them than attend my class even if it is a good fit. I think I could draw a circle on a map around where my class is held and all the longtime practitioners would all be within that circle.

This doesn’t mean you will always be there. This doesn’t mean that your kids won’t get sick or you won’t go on vacation. But is attending class a no-brainer when unusual stuff doesn’t pop up? That will keep you consistent and mean you will practice tai chi enough to benefit from it.

how to start learning tai chi by finding a class

How I Learned Tai Chi

I wanted to end here by taking you back to when I was new to the art and how I started learning tai chi. It wasn’t perfect right from the start. I started with different schools, different groups, and even stopped practicing at times. Eventually I missed tai chi and came back to it. Now tai chi adds so much to my life that I practice regularly.

I became interested in tai chi and began attending a Yang Style class that was very convenient. I met great people who I am still friends with today and learned a form. However, my progress was limited by my teacher’s limitations. He was a really nice guy and was teaching me well but I mistakenly perceived his abilities as being really good. I did everything that he said and then would beat myself up for not experiencing all of the reputed benefits of tai chi. The power, the internal energy and the improvement on my daily life just wasn’t happening.

Then I attended a conference of a Chinese teacher who now lives in New York. In 2-3 hours I brought energy out of my hands, defeated classmates in push hands, and improved my posture. So I left the class I had been attending to work on these skills “alone.” Soon I found that I was not alone. I met three guys who arrived at the same realization that I did. They met in a park and were able to demonstrate really good skills. They refused to take a teacher, not because of bureaucracy or money, but because they didn’t want a limited view on what was possible. They saved their money and traveled to nearby cities for workshops and then got together to practice what they learned for 4-6 months.

Then the reading, videos, and online information began. Not because I was unable to find a class but because I was highly motivated and my appetite for new information was insatiable.

Through conferences I got to know the Chen family consisting of Chen Qing Zhou and his son Chen Youze and have consistently stayed with their form and practices. I regularly attended conferences of visiting Chen stylists. After a number of years, Chen Youze suggested that I begin to teach to share tai chi and to improve my own skills through instruction. I continue to attend workshops, host workshops, and teach weekly for free.

We began hosting our own conferences when tai chi grand masters were on tour in the US. We collect pay via donations throughout the year. This added to conference fees enabled us to add our city to their tour. Often they stay in our houses which is as exciting and informative as the training. The next logical step was to travel to China to train for several weeks. This experience cemented me as a lifelong practitioner and I have wanted to share the benefits of tai chi ever sense.

how to start tai chi with a trip to China

I can’t express in words how tai chi has positively impacted my life and am constantly looking for a way to share. Choose your resources wisely but don’t discount your ability to learn tai chi where you live and within the limitations of your schedule. Any exposure (including videos, books, and online resources) can spark a person’s interest to get them moving along The Way.

So how do you get started with tai chi? Start with these pointers for choosing a class and then by looking for a class in your area and then ask the questions above to make sure you get up and running in the right class.

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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