Tai Chi Instructors: Finding a Good Instructor

Finding the right instructor can make a big difference in how quickly and smoothly you’re able to progress in tai chi. Here are some things to consider when selecting a tai chi instructor:

• Find an instructor with solid tai chi skills.

• Consider the instructor’s credentials, including lineage

• How are the personal dynamics?

• Visit the school

• Is the instructor’s teaching style consistent with your learning style?

• Does the instructor maintain a safe learning environment?

• Does the instructor teach and demonstrate the aspects of tai chi you’re wanting to learn?

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Find an instructor with solid tai chi skills. Start with substance first—instructor competence. In addition to being able to do the form with good body alignments—minimal qualifications for a good instructor—an instructor should move smoothly with a lot of relaxed qi energy. Their movements should be unified and connected, as well as smooth and fluid. Their limbs should never be locked or overextended.

A good instructor should be knowledgeable enough to be able to demonstrate and to discuss the fundamental principles of tai chi. They should understand and teach more of tai chi than just the choreography and body movements.

One way to assess this is by looking at the instructor’s overall experience with tai chi. This is a measure of the time they’ve spent studying the art, the investment they’ve made in their personal practice, as well as their actual teaching experience.

For beginners, it isn’t critical to start with a tai chi master. However, it's important to find an instructor who understands good body alignments and basic tai chi principles.

Credentials. Consider the instructor’s credentials. How did they learn tai chi and how did they learn to teach it?

Lineage. Responsible instructors know about the lineage of their style. They understand the style, and also how the practice of this style may differ from the approach of other schools.

But, don’t let yourself be overly swayed by lineage. Just because someone is a direct descendant of a tai chi master (or studied with one) doesn’t mean they’re a good practitioner themselves—or even a good teacher.

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Personal Dynamics. Even years and years after the fact, most of us can remember a favorite teacher who made going to class fun--or at the very least, bearable. And then there were other teachers we couldn’t wait to get away from.

Do yourself a favor, give tai chi a fair chance, and don’t pick someone unbearable as your new tai chi instructor. Personal dynamics and chemistry are important in whether you’ll make the extra effort to get to class after a long, wearying day. The instructor—particularly one’s first instructor—can influence whether you’ll even want to continue with tai chi after the end of the course.

Visit the School. If possible, check an instructor out in person first. Check to see what the instructor can do, and not just what they say they can. Take a moment to reflect after watching the instructor do a form. Were you inspired to want to do those movements yourself? Or was it more of a ho-hum experience? If that was the case, you might want to keep looking.

Also, credentials, certifications, fancy schools, and impressive lineages may not be as important as the rapport you have with the instructor.

Use the visit to observe how the instructor interacts with the other students as well. Is there a strong hierarchy in the school or is the atmosphere more informal?

Learning Style. Make things easier on yourself. Find an instructor who can teach according to your learning style.

Traditionally in China, beginners simply followed the instructor’s movements, no questions asked. This may have continued for years, until the instructor felt the student had gained sufficient skill and displayed sufficient dedication to warrant more individual attention and explanation. Some instructors today have a similar philosophy, or at least expect beginners to simply jump in and follow along. If you’re not interested in explanations, this can work.

Others rely on explanations of what they’re doing. Or they may like more relaxed classes where questions are welcomed. Decide what is important to you.

Safety. A goal of tai chi is be relaxed. Students need to feel comfortable in a school and not worried about getting injured. It’s the instructor’s responsibility to teach how tai chi movements and exercises can be done safely.

This is especially important when learning tai chi fighting techniques. Joint locks, throws, and even an accidentally wayward elbow can cause real damage. You need to trust the instructor’s ability to maintain a safe learning environment.

Focus. Find an instructor whose focus is the same as yours. It could be frustrating to practice with a martial arts crowd if your main goal is better health—or the other way around.

Finding a good instructor is critical for learning tai chi. Use the guidelines above to help you with this process.

Next: Read about tai chi workshops, events, and seminars.