So what should you focus on first in your journey of learning Tai Chi (or any martial art for that matter)? Should you break movements down into sequences and practice those in isolated steps to get all the details right, or gloss over the details to quickly get the feel for the bigger picture? In my mind it’s actually both. Doing one exclusively sets you up for pain further down the road.
Build a solid foundation…
You do need to spend the time to lay the foundation and take it slow rather than rushing on and trying to learn too many different things as quickly as possible. Only a strong foundation allows you to grow in the long-term. Most schools and teachers agree on that.
In order to do that you must spend the time to learn the details. Learn a movement and then polish, polish, polish,… Only when you really understand a movement in all its details will you be able to build on it over time. Initially that will seem to slow your progress down, but over time it’s the only way that allows you to grow to more advanced levels of mastery.
Working on the details never ends. Even after decades of practicing you always need to come back to the most fundamental basics. And you will always discover things that you did wrong or got complacent on.
…but don’t become a robot!
However there is also a risk in isolating movements and details too much in the beginning.
I’ve seen that in my early Karate days, when movements were taken apart into stages for beginners and then trained in those isolated stages with the teacher counting the steps through the stages of what should actually be one fluid movement. We all had tremendous difficulties to ‘un-learn’ those breaks in the movement and make them fluid again.
I’ve also seen it more recently in Tai Chi classes, where flows were chopped up and breathing wasn’t talked about at all for beginner classes. To me that sets you up for a lot of re-learning later on. It makes it harder for your body to ‘feel’ what Tai Chi (or martial arts) is all about. It also takes away a lot of the fun you get from practicing Tai Chi or martial arts.
It’s never either / or
In your practice you do need both, and in my mind, you should be exposed to both from the beginning.
You need to move slow and work on the (sometimes boring) details to lay the proper foundation, but you also need to get the chance early on to dip your toes in the water and get exposure to the bigger ideas and principles on movements, body dynamic, breathing and mind-body connection.
We are not robots after all and we like to understand (at least get a glimpse of) what we’re doing and where we’re heading.
“Make as many mistakes as possible!”
In our classes we try to combine both by spending 90% of the time on the details and basics, but then explore ‘what’s beyond’ for 10% of the time. During those 10% we encourage students to ‘make as many mistakes as possible’, to free their mind from the details and instead focus on the flow, their breathing and just how the movements ‘feel’.
We don’t want anyone to be handwavy, but we also want to make sure that even beginners start developing a feeling and muscle memory for what the form and flow should feel like and what breathing in sync with the motion might feel like.
We also let them ‘run with the form’ every now and then, even if they don’t know every movement yet. They will make mistakes for sure (like we all still do after all those years of practice), but they will also get a glimpse of where the practice is leading to, which turns out to be extremely motivational for beginners.
It’s important to take a conscious break from ‘wanting to do it right’, from your mind trying to control every detail of a movement, and with that quite frankly often getting in the way. Let your body take over from time to time and good things will happen. That reminds me of an old martial arts story:
A new student asks the master: “How long will it take to learn and master your art?”
To which the master responds: “Ten years.”
The student is not satisfied and asks: “What if I study twice as hard as every other student?”
The master replies: “Then it will take fifteen years.”
The frustrated student asks: “What if I even double that effort?”
To which the master replies: “It will take twenty years then.”
The moral is not to stop practicing regularly and passionately, but rather to let the art develop naturally and not try to force progress, in order to speed up the process.