Sent in by Angela Fallon - County Coach Edinburgh
Having not been to a course for some time, I had forgotten what a tonic it is to be a learner and immerse myself in a full three days of Tai Chi and Feng Sau. I forgot how alive I feel when I am learning and how everything else going on my life is just forgotten about.
On the Spring Course our group worked through 82 to 102 in the Tai Chi Form. We had repeated it a few times when Howard came over and went around each of us making small adjustments to the arms. When he came to me, he adjusted my left hand as I hadn’t noticed a kink in the wrist. As soon as it was adjusted I could feel the chi flowing through my hand and arm. I hadn’t noticed I’d shut that wrist channel off. Howard talked us through keeping a smooth movement as we ‘put the ball down’ and rotated the wrists. For all of us, this had become like two movements – put the ball down – circle the wrists. Instead Howard told us to relax the wrists, and then the movement became one. Even after 20 years doing this, I feel a joy in my heart when I learn and feel something new. I always marvel at the wonder of this art. It is a limitless source of knowledge about ourselves and gives us the opportunity to not only find out more about where we hold tension, but more importantly, it shows us that we can ‘let it go’ when we choose to. That is so incredibly valuable in this busy life that we lead, full of pressures and stress.
One of the benefits of being on a course is having so much time to immerse yourself what you are doing. Sometimes, when we practice movements we are familiar with, we often stop noticing what we are doing. Our brains are hard-wired to create frameworks so when you have done something a few times over, the brain tells us that we’ve ‘got it now’ so we begin to lose the openness in which we approached the movement in the first place. We are no longer like a child exploring the world for the first time and alert to every experience. That is when we need to remind ourselves to explore the feeling in that practice again. We need to do something over and over - not to experience the same - but to be open to your body showing you something new.
We must not fear correction or change, but recognise that we are being guided to experience something even better. I think this can be an area many teachers struggle with as we want to teach everything ‘correctly’ and we want our students to trust that we are teaching them ‘correctly’. It is a subtle balance between accurately passing on what you have been taught without embellishing it, but not being so precise as to be unnatural, and recognising what is right for our individual size and frame. It is especially important for teachers to feel comfortable with being corrected.
I have seen first-hand in other associations how not being able to be ‘wrong’ can be destructive. I have experienced teachers who will fudge things, make up what they don’t know or are resistant to change because they do not want to ‘lose face.’ This is usually because people are fearful of being judged, fearful of being less than perfect, and sometimes because they view themselves as being elevated above their students instead of being equal to them. That is the ego and no one likes feeling vulnerable. However, no one is perfect and just like our students, teachers are also students of this art, on our own journeys and working on ourselves. If we are to retain this fine art, without diluting or changing it for future generations, we need to have the humility to be corrected and correct ourselves when we start to add our own habits, and to be continually open to learn.
When I look back at my Tai Chi journey, I feel grateful for all my experiences; I learned good lessons in sometimes bad situations. I had some teachers who were bullying and controlling, and some teachers who put themselves on pedestals and said their way was the only way. In my early Tai Chi journey, it was a struggle to experience this. But no one is all bad or all good, we are all just flawed in different ways. It has been an education about people, the effects of power, the importance of humility and the precious gift of always being a learner.
What all these teachers had in common was that they had stopped learning. They had become stagnant. When we stop learning and challenging ourselves then we ‘hold on’ and become resistant or fearful of what we don’t know. When I left the first association, I planned to give myself a year of exploring other associations before finding the right place for me. I was conscious that I had a class of students whom I had pulled out of an association and I did not want to jump blindly into another association only to find a similar situation. I decided to explore and experience for a year so I could make an informed choice. One of the reasons I stayed with EWTA was because Howard’s passion to pass on these arts was apparent. More than that, he was, and still is, joyful in what he is doing. And that is the secret to all learning. When you are joyful you are relaxed, you are peaceful and open to learning.
I remember early on in EWTA, someone asked Howard something about a movement in the Silk and for a moment you could see him thinking. My previous teachers would have said what they thought, but Howard went to his table and checked a folder of notes, then came back and told us. That says a lot. A number of years ago Howard took up learning to play a musical instrument. Rather than sticking with what he is comfortable with, Howard took up a new challenge to become a learner again. This willingness to learn is a choice and is not age dependent. It is a willingness to grow and a love of life and all its experiences and challenges. When we choose to be stagnant or stay in our comfort zone, we are holding on and fearful of change. It is the death of the growth of the spirit and the soul. But it is a choice. When we choose to learn, in whatever that may be, we are joyful, inspired, energised and often creative. If you are feeling stagnant right now, you can change that very easily.
If you love these arts and want to develop both your skills and your knowledge of yourself, I urge you to get along to some courses when you can. Recognise what a valuable opportunity you have to learn with Howard. He will not be doing this forever. Seek your opportunities to grow and develop, to challenge yourself, do not take the familiar for granted but instead look for the new in the old and enjoy the journey.
Howard, who was a student of the late Grand Master Chee Soo for 21 years has been practicing and teaching the Lee Style of Tai Chi and related arts since 1973.