What does it really take to master tai chi? Can anyone become a tai chi master? Do you need to study with a master in order to learn special secrets? How do you know when you are a master? How do you know if you are learning from a true master? These are important questions to ask, especially if you love tai chi and want to get the most out of your training. After you finish reading this post you will be better equipped to identify true mastery wherever you see it.
Unfortunately, in the world of tai chi fake masters are in abundance and true masters are rare beyond belief. When someone is new to tai chi it can be difficult to discern a real master from someone who has, by comparison, a relatively low level of tai chi skill. That’s because even low level tai chi can be impressive when demonstrated in a certain way. Most people are not very well grounded and their balance can be easily taken by someone who has practiced push hands for a few years, especially if they don’t have experience with martial arts or contact sports. For this reason I myself considered some of my teachers along the way to be masters, because my skill at the time by comparison made it seem so. they could throw me around like a rag doll and make it seem effortless.
Any improvement is better than no improvement
Before I go any further I want to be clear about something. I wholeheartedly believe that anyone who can pass on even a modest amount of skill or knowledge to another person that helps them improve their life in some way should be honoured and appreciated for their contribution. Anyone who can impart even the smallest degree of tai chi knowledge to a would be seeker is a treasure to humanity. Each and every teacher I’ve encountered has taught me important lessons and skills that to this day serve me well. Even so we must learn to recognise when we have outgrown our teacher in any area of life in order to continue to improve.
Getting the fundamentals right is key
After studying with one teacher for a couple of years I recall that one day he changed a small movement in the form. I was immediately curious why he had suddenly changed the movement so I asked why are we now doing it this way? He told me “this way is more beautiful”. That was the moment I decided to find a new teacher. When you have studied tai chi for a few years you will understand that what we are doing is transforming the body at the deepest levels. Tai chi reshapes our entire body from the inside out and the outside in simultaneously. We don’t do tai chi because it looks beautiful. We do it because we want to transform into something new. We do it because we can feel the changes it brings. We do it because it feels right.
Small errors over time compound into disaster
I knew if I were to practice something incorrectly that inevitably my entire structural alignment would end up out of shape and out of balance. Before I discovered tai chi my body was completely out of balance. I had numerous posture issues that became ingrained over many years, and the process of untying all of these postural knots that I had created was a monstrous endeavour. If you are going somewhere and you are off course by just one degree, over time the effects can be disastrous. For example, if a rocket heading to the moon was just one degree wrong without a correction it would miss the moon by 4190 miles. Life is like that. I realised that I needed a mid course correction for my tai chi. Otherwise I would miss the moon.
Choose the form then find the teacher
I began the journey to find a new teacher and I didn’t know who that would be but I knew what I was looking for. I chose someone who I considered to be the number one in the world and I committed to finding a teacher who was teaching the same tai chi form. The tai chi form is the first thing anyone should aim to learn if they are serious about improving. You must choose a form, and make sure that a high level master has demonstrated that form so you can compare the way they do it to the way your teacher does it. This is very important. If your teacher is doing the form different to the master, that should tell you something right away. Whatever form you are learning there should be a video online of one of the masters demonstrating that form. Take whatever you can from the video and get some lessons from a good teacher who is dedicated to the same form. If you can’t find someone local teaching the form you want to learn and you are a beginner then you might have to settle for whatever you can find. Any teacher is better than no teacher.
Meeting a true master will completely change your perspective
On the day I met my teacher I realised I was in the presence of a true master. Not just a very experienced tai chi professional, but a warrior. People who meet this type of high level teacher will always have a lasting memory of the experience. They have a “fullness” about them. They really are full of chi! On that first day I remember saying something like “I’m so grateful to finally meet a true master”, and he said with a humble smile “I am not a master”. I didn’t believe it then and I definitely don’t believe it now, but in that modest reply was a hidden gem of insight into true mastery. Humility. A true master emanates humility. A true master is always working on their craft. They are always working to improve, to dig deeper, to uncover a new insight. They do not seek praise, they do not self congratulate themselves, and they don’t try to place themselves above others. They are not know it alls, if fact they are quite the opposite.
We don’t know what we don’t know
Humility is a critical element of mastery. You recognise that for all you think you know there is still another level beyond where you are. There is more to understand, more to feel, more to develop, more to refine. A true master does not need to call himself master, because he embodies mastery in the way he approaches his craft. A true master will continue to hone their skills until they reach the very peak of the mountain. Only then, when they know with absolute certainty that they are at the highest peak of the highest mountain will they put their flag in the ground. That’s true mastery.
Anyone can develop high level tai chi skills
I know without a doubt that most people can reach a very high level of skill in tai chi by following correct teaching and by training correctly, and if they have the good fortune of access to a genuine master this will greatly improve their chances of success. That said, success is not guaranteed. Even if you have lessons with a master every week for a year, or even 5 years, or 10 years, you still only get out what you put in. And most people don’t put very much in.
You’ve got to start wherever you are
When I first started to learn tai chi the only time I practiced was when I was at the class. Life gets so busy we struggle to find the time right? Or maybe we just allow ourselves to get distracted? Whatever my excuse was, I only was practicing a couple of hours a week and most of this was during the class. But even this small amount of tai chi started to change my posture, and I began to move differently, became more relaxed, more flowing. Not to mention I felt more energised for days following my training. I was learning Chen style empty hand forms, weapon forms, and some qigong. While we all have to start somewhere, I can see now that my training was too diverse, and my energy dispersed. If you want to master something, you’ve got to focus on one thing and one thing only. You can’t master 3 different forms at once. To really master something you must focus on one thing at a time.
Mastery demands all of a person
It took me a very long time to understand this, in fact I’m still trying to improve in this area, because it relates to more than just tai chi. If you want to master something you have to give it your full attention, and you have to give it time. Lots of time. You won’t master the piano playing one hour a day. A concert pianist practices 3 to 4 hours a day. Most of us struggle to stick with one thing only and see it through all the way to the end. We have many desires, things we want to see, do, have, be, achieve, experience, the list is infinite. We feel connected to the things that we enjoy doing. Not only that, but we know we are capable of achieving great things, so we often try our hand at multiple projects at the same time, but to master anything we have to give it our heart and soul to the exclusion of all else. As Einstein once put it “mastery demands all of a person.”
Tai chi is a numbers game
If you want to really master tai chi you need to pick one form and learn it well. Choose an empty hand form and find the best teacher you can and practice as much as you can. How much does a master practice? Somewhere between 6 and 10 hours a day, 6 to 7 days a week, for 10 to 20 years, and then some. That is what it takes to be a high level master. If you want to reach that level then you have to approach mastering tai chi like you would approach competing for a gold medal in the olympics. A true tai chi master is the best of the best of the best. An olympic gold medalist trains 30 to 40 hours a week for most of their career. For them training is a full time job. They have teams that help them, coach them, monitor their training, measure their improvements, and track their growth for years on end. Tai chi masters don’t have anyone around giving them feedback. They focus on the form and drill it again and again and again. 10 forms a day, 20 forms a day, 30 forms a day. The more forms you do the more you will develop your tai chi skills. Ultimately you must know the form inside out.
The good news is that you can do this, anyone can. It starts with learning one form very very well. If you can learn every posture in one form and have the basic shape correct you have a good chance of succeeding. This is because after a certain point the form will become self correcting. If you focus on the fundamental principles such as relaxation, balance, moving from the center, and whole body moving as one, you will begin to intuit when a movement is incorrect because it will feel wrong. It will feel like it doesn’t belong. A good beginning would be one form a day, then work your way up to three forms a day, then five a day. If you can get up to five forms a day regularly you will experience some major shifts in your physiology and your chi flow. 5 forms a day would be part time, 10 forms semi-pro, 20+ forms a day you will be practicing as a professional. It is up to you how hard you are prepared to train.
Naturally you don’t need to practice this many forms to to gain the numerous health benefits that that tai chi has to offer. If you simply want to enjoy tai chi for health and relaxation then by all means do what makes your heart sing. Learn as many forms as you like, learn weapon forms, practice qigong, all of these are wonderful and improve health. If however you want to be able to use tai chi one day as a martial art, you need to focus on one form first and drill it hard for 5 to 10 years. This is the only way to develop internal power.
Whatever level you want to reach I think it is critical that you are including some standing meditation in your training, especially before you begin your forms. Standing helps us to develop insight (seeing inside) so that we can become aware of our postural imbalances and use our awareness to release layers of tension within the structure. Standing helps us to develop one of the most important principles of tai chi; relaxation. The reason standing is so important is because once you start moving there are so many things to be mindful of that tension will almost immediately increase. Without relaxation we won’t be able to feel our center, and therefore won’t be able to move from the center, and thus won’t be able to experience “whole body moving as one.” So do your best to follow the principles, find a good teacher, and train hard. Mastery of tai chi requires dedication, persistence, and determination. It requires day and night study and practice. It is not for everyone.
It is said in the inner circles that in every generation there is only one master. That is how rare it is. What’s important is that we continue to improve ourselves as best we can. The benefits and rewards of hard training are difficult to describe. You don’t need to be a master to be able to move from your center, or to develop relaxation, or to unite the body and feel more connected, more balance, more centered. The joy of tai chi is beyond words and every step on the journey is worth its weight in gold. Stay on the path and you will experience transformations beyond anything you can possibly imagine.