I have been practicing Tai Chi for 26+ years. During that time, I had a Sifu (a “Father-Teacher”) for about five years, and I didn’t even have that until I’d been practicing for about 4 years. My first period of study was a 1,000 day vow I took to do Tai Chi every day. During that time I got up to 5 hours of practice a day, with most averaging around 2, or 3. Most of my learning and exploration has come by way of my own practice. When I first met my Sifu, he was quite surprised that I had no previous instruction other than from books. He refused to be my “teacher”, saying instead that he wanted to practice with me and that we had things to learn from each other. I don’t say this to impress, but to highlight how my particular path has been laid out.
The deepening of my understanding of Tai Chi comes in fits and spurts. I’ll be going through the form, no different than any other day, and something will shift. It might be my stance suddenly dropping a couple of inches, or my pelvis flattening, or an energetic flow in part of my body that did not previously seem to have one (at least to my conscious awareness anyways.) These shifts are not apparent from the outside, generally. Only someone who had been working with me for some time, and who had a very keen eye, might pick up the difference. Mostly it’s just me who notes these shifts. I think that is as it should be.
The weakness of this approach is that I would probably be farther along if I had worked with a teacher for more than a quarter of the time I’ve studied Tai Chi. The strength of this method is that I can, at this point, say that my Tai Chi is “my” Tai Chi. There is something very special, and precious in that.
I’ve never nailed myself down to one path in life. I study many, and take what is useful from each. I make a decent Buddhism practitioner, a horrible Hinduism student, a barely passable Christian mystic, an okay Gnostic, an above average Discordian (a contradiction in terms of epic proportion), a somewhat skilled Philosopher, and so on. The one path I feel a good amount of comfort, and confidence with is Taoism. The reasons are many fold, but the pertinent one here is that Tai Chi, if anything, is a physical expression of Taoist thought. To a large extent, to study Tai Chi is to study the Tao. From that perspective, I have been studying Taoism for two and a half decades (actually more like three and a half since I studied Taoist thought before I took up Tai Chi.) Because my Tai Chi is “my” Tai Chi, I am afforded the opportunity to study Tai Chi, and thus the Tao, from “inside.”
This is something missing in my culture. By my culture, I mean the Western modern world of the 80’s and 90’s, in California. I don’t want to assume anything for other people. However, in my culture, a certain sense of positive ownership was missing. Other than vague notions of “finding my voice” given by early English teachers who saw some talent in writing for me, there was a basic sense installed that I should find some comfortable, well-worn path, and pursue that for life. Be a Doctor, or a Lawyer, or a Mechanic, or something. Luckily for me (mostly) I have never been much of a joiner. Tai Chi is the first place where I found great encouragement to make something my own, to find my own expression of self. That lead me to a lot of “independent study” in my life, and my wandering career path has definitely born witness to this proclivity.
I am slowly coming to learn, and be grateful for, how much Tai Chi has held open a welcoming space for me to explore who I am in the world. Others use different modalities. For some it is cooking, for some crafting, for some art, for some scholarship, for some religion, etc. Regardless, it seems to me that being human, and understanding what that means, requires some path to follow, develop, and make your own. Whatever that path may be, everyone who I have ever met who has found theirs has been far better for it.