A Needle Wrapped In Cotton

Tai Chi Chuan is often described as "a needle wrapped in cotton". It is sometimes referred to as "shadow boxing" or "cotton boxing" and follows the classic dictum that the hidden weapon is the most effective weapon. This all adds up to a very deceptive and illusive martial art.

When so much is happening below the surface, the beginning student can run into problems. It goes without saying that the teacher's role is paramount. Unfortunately, Tai Chi Chuan's deceptive nature also makes finding a qualified instructor very difficult.

Twenty years ago, there were few books or videos on Tai Chi Chuan and the student was more or less at the mercy of the teacher. It was difficult for a beginning student to know if he or she was getting quality instruction. My early experiences were trial and error, shot in the dark attempts to learn. Most, if not all, instruction centered around the form, as it should. However, I discovered that the form, in and of itself, is not an end all. It is where the curriculum begins. In order to practice Tai Chi Chuan correctly, the student must go through a process of body modifications. My practice was devoid of anything that would allow me to follow the basic principles. Good teaching methods are universal. Quality instruction shouldn't identified by a given time period or place but rather by its scope and intension. It should have a specified progression of skills ranging from basic to advanced and should allow for individual differences. The student should, at some point, be encouraged by a sense of accomplishment. Instruction shouldn't be a haphazard, willy-nilly series of exercises that lead to nowhere. Unfortunately, the bulk of my instruction came from those who had less than good teaching practices. There is a reason why the Chinese call their teachers "sifu". It is the same commitment a father has towards his son or daughter.

However, for all the disappointment and lost hours invested, I found that quality Tai Chi Chuan instruction is still available. I recognized it in a small school called the Internal Arts Institute in Hobe Sound, Florida. I saw the strict adherence to the Classical Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan transmissions. I recognized it in the skill and commitment of Dimitri Mougdis, Head Instructor and I became aware of the fundamental skills lacking in my previous instruction. The curriculum was clear, the progression of skills was apparent in this school. What others had offered was merely a shell without substance; cotton without a needle.

Dimitri Mougdis, passes down the Classical Yang Family transmissions entrusted to him by his sifu, Grandmaster Gin Soon Chu . Somewhere in the Chinese classics is a saying, "When the student is ready, the teacher will find him." I'll take it for what it's worth and be grateful that my sifu found me. For those who have yet to find a qualified Tai Chi Chuan instructor, caveat emptor, beware of fraudulent practices.
By John Stein

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