Posts Tagged ‘teaching’


Bob Klein

Tai-chi teachers who actually expect their students to learn Tai-chi fear that they will lose students. Tai-chi is a very exacting practice and requires awareness of each muscle and joint of the body, restoring full function. While many people would love to learn Tai-chi, few are ready to do the work.

So the teacher must decide how much he or she asks of the students. The less he asks, the more students he has. The more he asks, the higher quality of students he has. Sometimes the decision rests on how many bills he has to pay each month, unless he has a “real job”.

To the degree that the decision is based just on paying the bills, the students get a “make-believe” version of Tai-chi and that version is passed down, as that teacher’s students themselves become teachers, believing that they are really practicing Tai-chi. That teacher may defend himself by saying, “If I didn’t dilute Tai-chi, these students wouldn’t come to class. At least they are moving. That has to help them a little”.

These are the issues in the back of each teacher’s mind. I bring this issue up now because I have been hearing the same issue raised in the field of Pilates exercise. Some Pilates teachers say that they don’t mind if a teacher changes the training as long as they don’t call it Pilates.

My choice is to require that my students learn Tai-chi. They sometimes complain that I keep teaching new principles and they can’t keep up with the pace of learning. Yet I am teaching the same thing all the time even though I may explain it differently. They may ask, “Why didn’t you ever say that before” even though I say it all the time. When you are presenting the deeper aspects of Tai-chi training, the body of the student has to learn. The brain may feel that it is not “getting it”, but the brain doesn’t have to get it. The body learns and the student has to become comfortable with and learn to perceive that level of learning. Yet the brain always feels that if it hasn’t learned something then it hasn’t been learned.

When you really teach Tai-chi you bring the student through a transformation in the learning process. The student learns about his body and attention (how they work), then learns from the body and attention and then body, attention and the world around him all become connected.

Make-believe Tai-chi, of course, is just memorizing as many forms as you can and learning to say spiritual clichés. This may seem like a cynical attitude but the schools that emphasize this approach really irk sincere teachers. While the students of these schools certainly enjoy their classes, the downside is that the reputation of Tai-chi as transforming peoples’ lives just comes down to parroting phrases and movements.

Is there a danger that Tai-chi will become a cartoon of itself? If this is happening to other disciplines as well, are we all simply slipping into cartoon lives?

I have heard the argument that during most times in history, a few people really practiced each art and the rest practiced a shallower version and yet these arts survive. These times are no different from any other. I hope that is true. What do you think?


Is Tai-chi dying? Are there still teachers teaching the intricate mechanics, the physics, the dynamics of mind and energy that underlies the beautiful movements? Or are we playing “Simple Simon”? Simple Simon says, “do this”; simple Simon says “do that”.

Are we, as teachers, worried that if we actually ask students to learn the principles that they will leave our classes and switch to a simpler form of exercise? Has Tai-chi become a collection of “techniques” or is it still a transformative experience?

These are the questions I ask as I look around at the practice of Tai-chi as it is today. I see push hands players standing in tense, misaligned positions and knocking their arms around. I see people doing forms with all their energy bound up in their heads and upper backs, with locked hips.

I hesitate to bring this up because each Tai-chi teacher feels he or she is doing Tai-chi the “right way”. It is just those other people over there who are doing it wrong. We should be open minded and allow for variations of practice, I am told.

In this post, I am asking other Tai-chi teachers this question, to answer just within yourself. Do you feel that you are aware of, feel and practice the internal practice? Is your mind connected to each muscle and joint? Is your mind evenly distributed throughout your body or can you pay attention to the body only from the head? Is each part of the body independently conscious and is it in a creative relationship with each other part of the body or is this question meaningless to you?

Tai-chi is a practice designed to lead you to an experience of, and healing of your internal state which then affects your relationship to the rest of the world. Has it been that for you and have you found ways of transmitting that experience to your students so they actually feel it?

What do you feel is the state of Tai-chi practice today?


Snake Creeps Down Movement of Yang Form

In our last teacher-training course, I discussed issues a new teacher will have to become comfortable with teaching. The first issue is to know which principles you want to teach with each movement of your form. Each should explain how to move properly but also how the principle applies to everyday life.

The second issue is to be comfortable in your class. There is a tendency to feel it is you against the audience. You have to realize that the audience (class) is on your side. They want you to teach them well. Also realize that you know your subject (or should know) and they don’t. You are leading them into a new world of self-awareness and health (and maybe later on, self defense). You live that world and, like a tour guide, are showing them the “sights”.

You don’t need to “prove” how good you are. Certainly you should demonstrate movements to them but not to show off. What will most impress the student is your own enthusiasm and love for Tai-chi. If you can help them make the slightest improvement (stepping smoothly, relaxing their shoulders, etc.), they will remember that and want more. The Tai-chi class is not about you, the teacher. It is about them, the students. It is about making their lives better. If you have fun teaching, they will have fun learning.

It is important to align the students’ bodies. They can only know the difference of poor posture and good posture if you put them into a good posture. But they may feel awkward in that good posture, because they are not used to it. Explain that people get used to poor postures or to tensions and feel strange when they relax or align properly.

As you teach someone you may notice many corrections that need to be made. But focus in on only one or two. If you give too many corrections, the student may become frustrated. It is hard to hold yourself back from correcting but the student can only remember a little at a time.

These are some of the issues we discuss in our teacher training workshops. To assist the aspiring teachers, we have produced a “How to Learn and Teach Tai-chi” dvd series. Here is the link:
(Insert the above link in your heading to enter the dvd website and then go to the bottom of that page.)


Bob Klein in chi-gung posture.

I am putting together a dvd series on How to Teach Tai-chi. It will focus on the basic principles of Tai-chi form practice and how to convey those principles to the students. While someone may be skilled at a Tai-chi form, they may not be aware of the issues of teaching. I think this series will be helpful and may inspire people to dedicate themselves to teaching Tai-chi.

I like to say, “I’ve been around the block a few times”, meaning that at 64 years old and teaching for almost 40 years, I have become familiar with how to express Tai-chi to students in a way they can grasp and to appreciate their difficulties in learning.

First of all, each student comes to the class with his or her load of tensions, misalignments, emotional fears and mental programming. Tai-chi has to be taught to each individual differently, considering what they come in with. The teacher must develop methods to become aware of the state of the student in order to fashion a teaching approach for that student.

When you are teaching a group class and are correcting postures, for example, you have to remember what approach you are taking with each student as you move from one to the other. It is like playing multiple games of chess. You can’t make too many corrections at one time because the student will become frustrated and won’t remember what you did anyway. So you have to stick with a theme of correction (e.g. “relax the hips”) throughout the class, for that student.

You realize that the real benefit of Tai-chi training is not memorizing a form or chi-gung set, but that the student has worked through all of his or her issues, whether physical, mental or emotional and come out as a truly free and powerful individual. That is what the teacher should be going for, not just to teach people to memorize yet another thing.

The teacher must know how each principle of Tai-chi achieves that. While all the students will arrive at that same free, powerful state, they are each taking different paths through Tai-chi training. If you force them to take only the path you yourself learned, then they will never really learn.

And so you not only have to learn chi-gung, forms, push hands, fighting etc. to be a teacher; you also have to learn how to teach. You have to leave the limited path of your own journey to see the whole landscape and appreciate the many ways students can travel through it. In doing this, you gain a greater insight into the magnitude of the training itself and of the genius of the thousands of teachers who contributed to it.

I am a bit fearful of embarking on this project, which would include videos and writing, because I don’t really have the time for it. But I think it could make a positive contribution and will be worth pursuing even if I accomplish only a little of it.

In my book, “Movements of Power”, I introduced this subject in the last third of the book. I will also be putting up some videos about how to teach a Tai-chi form on our youtube channel “zookinesis49”. I would appreciate your comments about whether you think this will be a worthwhile project.


We understand that play is a natural behavior of many animals.  Puppies and kittens understand that they aren’t really trying to kill each other.  They understand make-believe.  They also understand reality as when a large animal runs after them, growling loudly.  Play is not to be taken literally but is good practice for reality.

Play teaches you to perceive clearly and for your body to react quickly.  It develops a lively connection of attention to the body.

Our civilization uses this understanding to trick us.  It uses play, not to develop a connection of attention to the actions of the body, but to words.  As we become more and more lethargic, ideas replace the body as the arena of action.  We live in the world of ideas.  This changes the role of the body, and by extension, the whole physical world in our creative process.  Lately the new close relationship between our play, or creativity, and words, our thinking process, has changed.  The role of the body and then words is being replaced by machinery.  When you watch children play video games, to what is their attention connected?  It is hardly connected to the body or even to ideas.  It is connected to computer screen images.

This slow progression heads in one direction – to disconnect attention from the body and the physical world and to connect it to factors than can be manipulated by other people. It is hard to manipulate someone’s body.  It is easier to manipulate their ideas.  But if their attention is connected to machinery, you can control the programming even more easily.

The advertiser’s job is to move people’s attention in the direction of more manipulation.  The teacher’s job is to move the attention back to ideas and to the physical world. 

When you manipulate symbols – a national flag for example – you are trying to control peoples’ behavior.  In most cases this manipulation is not for the benefit of that person.  It is for the benefit of the manipulator. 

There are many human histories.  There is the history of wars and politics.  There is the history of the condition of the average person.  There are labor and social movements.  Histories of religion, philosophy, arts and science fill university curriculums.  But really, they are all the history of the attempted manipulation of attention to control behavior. 

It is the history of storytelling – the story of who we are, where we came from and why we are here.  If we feel we belong to one group that is opposed to another group, we have conflict. People can be made to fight other people because of the story of who they are and where they came from. 

Zookinesis teaches us how our attention becomes controlled by the stories we are told.  It teaches us to understand the dynamics of attention itself so that we can notice when and how it is being controlled and regain that control.

In order to do this it is important to understand what attention is and its relationship to the body and the physical world in general.

Zookinesis considers that what makes each person an individual is the way our creativity “plays” with the energy of attention.  It is similar to the way we “play” with the energy of gravity in the way we move.  Attention is the consciousness behind the eyes and ears.  It is that which is aware of thoughts and emotions. 

There are two forces controlling attention.  One is the various distractions that we encounter every day.  They mold our attention into their shape.  The other force is creativity which is the playfulness that makes each of us unique and is part of our biological heritage.  Any individual may be more influenced by the distractions or more by creativity. 

People with OCD (obsessive, compulsive disorder) are almost completely controlled by their environment.  They are drawn to the strongest distraction at each moment.  People who are completely controlled by their creativity we may call “airheads”.  They are hardly connected to the world around them but only to their ideas and fantasies. 

The job of a parent or teacher is to balance these two forces in the child or student.  The point of balance between these two forces is called “the gate” in Zookinesis.  The goal of the training is to become “the gatekeeper”, that is, to be fully aware of and control the balance of environmental influences and playful creativity on the flow of attention.

The role of a teaching, such as Zookinesis or Tai-chi, is to provide the student with the skills to maintain that balance.  To what degree do you allow yourself to be molded by the influences around you and to what degree do you step outside of those influences and “create your own story”?

At the advanced level of any teaching, the student begins to perceive “who” it is that is learning, controlling this balance and creating the story.  Religious people would call this “union with God”, meaning that you perceive the source of your own creativity.  You understand your uniqueness and yet your complete connection to all other people and forms of life. 

You cannot do this by handing over your attention to any particular dogma, whether a philosophy, religion or any teaching.  You can use these vehicles to develop the balance of external influences and creative influences on your attention, but you do not allow them to fully mold your perspective.  There are many vehicles on the road but in the end you need to step out of the vehicle and get to your destination.

Ancient religions and other teaching were based on “the elements”.  This was an early form of psychology.  You became aware of the influences of your body, your thinking mind, your will and your emotions and the balance of these factors in each moment of your life.  Your goal was to keep the “elements” in balance. 

The result was that you became aware of the fifth element – “spirit”.  Spirit was the force that connected all life together, or what we would call “chi” in Taoist philosophy.  When you achieved the balance of the first four elements it would be as if you were standing in the middle of a spiral staircase and could look all the way up and down the stairs. Spirit is all the activity that you see going on.  Each level is a level of life or consciousness.  Your next goal in these teachings, was to explore all the floors.  The final step of training was to be aware of all the levels of consciousness at the same time so that you are a fully conscious being. 

This is the basis of Zookinesis training.  You first become aware of the dynamics of your physical body.  In order to do this you have to allow your attention to connect to all parts of your body.  This requires working on the flow of attention and letting go of any blockage to that attention.  You gradually become aware of that part of you that directs the flow of attention (creativity). 

Now when you practice the exercises, you are not just shoving your body parts around.  You are lightly manipulating the flow of attention in your body and that, in turn, affects the movements.  Your efforts and movements become lighter and lighter and yet more effective and powerful. 

Through physical exercises, Zookinesis achieves a “spiritual” end, that of true self awareness.  You can then examine the “play” of your life to determine in which ways that play is positive or negative.  You can create a different play or story for yourself, one which is more healing for you and for others.

It all starts with realizing that consciousness itself is a force that connects you to the rest of nature.  It flows through your physical body and animates it. Chi is the biological activity that results.  Creativity is the way we play and is a natural behavior of many species.  We humans “play” with our attention and create stories.  We then build our civilizations on the foundation of those stories.

The physical and mental structures we build seem so solid and everlasting that we forget the “play” behind them.  When play, or creativity is no longer a part of each “element” of our lives, then we become deadened and our physical, mental and emotional health suffer.  Our “will” gets out of balance and we get angry when we don’t get our way. 

That is why I like public broadcasting programs so much.  They explain how creative people and cultures changed their world and their ideas.  They show how our own present situation is the result of this flow of the history of creativity.  Then we can take our part in that history and ask ourselves how we can become more creative.  We realize that rather than being just a member of a race, religion or nationality, we are a member of the creative force of life.


A Tai-chi form is a way of revealing the internal dynamics of mind, attention, emotion and internal energy, in external movements. If your movements are jerky, for example, then your attention proceeds in discreet, segmental units. If you turn your head to look where you are going, then you are thinking about the future and not paying attention to the alignment of the body in the present.
 If you use facial expressions to disapprove of the move you just did, then you are wedded to the past. If you hold yourself up, with your chest and shoulders high, then you feel that “you” are the top of your body and you don’t have a good feel for your whole body. This is also true if you step by lifting your leg and hip as you step.
The teacher can see a great deal of what is going on inside of you by watching your form. On the other hand, the teacher can correct internal problems by correcting your form. The patterns and behaviors required for a correct form, then affect your internal condition. Many people have a poor feel for their position in space. They may be leaning forward or backward and think they are straight. When they are corrected, they feel uncomfortable. If they were leaning back and are corrected to be straight, they will feel as if they are leaning forward. They are surprised when they look in the mirror.
Most people think they are relaxed most of the time. Yet when their form is corrected and their upper body is finally made to relax, they feel an intense weight in their legs. Now their weight sinks through their muscles and not just through their bones. Their muscles act as a spring and their weight partially compresses that spring. Their whole body becomes springy, not stiff.
Each time the teacher points out part of their body that is tense, they are surprised that they had any tension. They are also surprised at how much weight their legs must receive when they relax the upper body. It is important for the legs to be strong because they support the whole upper body.
If the body is relaxed, then the weight sinks into the center (the inside) of the legs. The legs act as an arch under a bridge, which can support a lot of weight. The weight an arch supports must be directed to the inside of the arch or the arch will collapse.  If the knees are in a locked position, the legs are no longer in an arch position and the body becomes rigid.
The activity of the eyes are also important in the form. They should be like the edge of a waterfall, receiving the water into the pool of the tan-tien (the center of the body, about one and a half inches below the navel). In other words, the eyes are soft, receiving the sights, but your attention doesn’t grab onto anything it sees. The eyes remain at eye level and the head aimed in the same direction as the hips.
Doing the form in this way will lead to great relaxation yet alertness. It will bring you to a state of meditation. It is important to have a good teacher correcting you as you would never achieve these qualities on your own. You might have a “pretty” form but not really make any internal changes. Tai-chi requires this internal change to a more natural way of moving and living.
It is sometimes discouraging for a student to be corrected (and corrected and corrected!) The mind, body and emotions have a great deal of resistance to change. But each improvement is one step on a journey to freedom and to health. You free yourself from the patterns of behavior that have controlled your life and that alone improves your health.


There is often a big difference between what you hear the teacher say and what he means. It’s not that the teacher doesn’t explain himself well; its that his teachings have to penetrate the body of assumptions you have accumulated all your life.
A student of mine said that he read in the classics that you should do the form equally from the north, east, south and west. He took that to mean that you should begin the form by facing the east sometimes, the west sometimes, etc., so that on average, you will begin the form facing each of the directions about the same number of times. It only dawned on him this week that it means that you should do the form equally from the north, east, south and west each time you do the form and at every moment of doing the form.
Elsewhere in Tai-chi writings it says that you should distinguish left from right and back from front. This means that you should be aware of each direction so that you can make sure your energy fills each direction at all times. The two sayings mean the same thing.
Another of my students this week said that when I even discuss the subject of “attention” her mind goes blank and she has trouble even paying attention to what I am saying. Often the teacher may say something that an inner part of you understands. This inner part (the Body-Mind) wakes up because it knows that the teacher is talking to it. This can disturb, distract or even overpower the thinking mind. The thinking mind then feels weak as the Body-Mind tries to come to the fore to listen to the teacher.
The teacher may tell you how to use a part of your back or your hips in the form or push hands. If you can’t even feel that part of your body you can’t really know what he means. The students often say that for the first time they feel that they have a back (or a hip or ribs etc.). They may know they have these parts (know with their minds) but they can’t feel the intricacies of movement and behavior of those parts. It is as if you read about a person and feel you know him. Then you actually spend time with him and really get to know him.
Books and teachers can give you all the information in the world about Tai-chi but until you FEEL, you really don’t know what it means. We say that each part of the body must be like the hands. This means that, just as you can manipulate the hands either to use tools or to be expressive, you should be able to use any part of the body that precisely. This includes the ribs, the back, the hips, etc.
If you are an actor, a simple gesture should give the viewer a world of information about what is going on inside of you. When we practice sparring, we need to “read” every movement, every posture, every glance of the sparring partner. Even his breathing pattern gives us information about his intentions. It is better to spar his intentions than his physical movements because the intentions come first. When you develop this awareness then the words of the teachers mean something.
One of the best training methods I know of is called, “The jolt of thought”. When an idea comes to you, it doesn’t come in words. The entire thought hits you in an instant. Then you translate it in your head into words. The words convey only a fraction of the content of the original thought. If you can only pay attention to words and not to the original “jolt of thought” then you only perceive a fraction of the creative thought that comes to you. Practice not translating the jolt of thought into words. You will find that it is “pregnant” with content. Don’t do this while driving or operating heavy machinery.
You may eventually be able to “think” completely with the jolts rather than with words. This is called, creativity. Then when you hear the teacher, his words will trigger many inner experiences inside you and you will be content to experience them rather than needing to snatch a few words of “understanding” from them. This inner “knowing” is far superior to intellectual knowing. (Not that there is anything wrong with intellectual knowing, as long as it doesn’t cut off the inner knowing).
A good teacher teaches to the Body-Mind. Your intellectual mind may not be able to latch on, yet you do feel a tug inside. Those students who feel that tug last. Those students who insist only on their intellectual knowing, never get far. They may study for 50 years and never get far. This is true for any training which combines mind and body.
Music is a great example. You may have a musician who is incredible technically but you wouldn’t want to listen to him. Yet you may have someone with limited technical skills but who has a whole lot of soul and you can’t stop listening. Obviously as a teacher, I am a proponent of both soul and technical skills. I believe one of my faults as a teacher is saying too much. Even in beginning classes, I discuss the inner processes a student goes through. Perhaps the student is not yet ready for that but at least he gets a sense of what Tai-chi and Zookinesis are all about. If he should quit after a few months of classes he doesn’t think that Tai-chi consists of learning a series of slow movements. He understands that the “forms” as they are called, are a method of teaching Tai-chi, but not the Tai-chi itself. He gains an appreciation for the depth of this training.
Yet I often see blank expressions on students faces when I discuss these things and I wonder if I went too far. I wondered this for a long time and then concluded that I can only teach the way I teach. Those students who like it will stay and those who don’t will move on. It is torture to contain myself when I would like to discuss an interesting subject. Perhaps a balance is necessary. When the expressions become blank then I know it is time to go back to teaching the movements.