My student Barry knows the travails of “forget” when it comes to his training in external martial arts. He has trained many years in a form of Karate to the level of a high ranking Black Belt. He is also a defensive training officer for the Government. Barry made good progress these past 2 years with the form and one can see he can go through much of it without thinking of what comes next.
Note: This is really what comprises the 1st stage of learning Classical Tai Chi, wherein one can do the form in all the right directions.
What is really next for 2nd stage is correct hand position, then 3rd is timing and finally 4th is integration of internal discipline. Barry feels chagrined about some things I mention but what I see is somewhat normal for the stage of learning he is at. In some respect that is that he holds his arms very close and tight (like a compact form with no internal discipline). That seems to create tension and compression of arms, one can see scrunching at the shoulders, tensing the neck. It appears he does not stretch at the shoulder, for that matter he keeps the wrong angles of arms for postures.
Barry’s learning, scrunching, tension is not very different from other students who are at the same stage. However, they all, including Barry are more advanced than they think. Specifically, they do have internal discipline in the major movements, I can see core moving and engaging with the arms. My own teacher, Master Stephen Hwa touches on this “learning curve” in an email that I include here. So I thought about this some more and read pages 72 and 73 of “Uncovering the Treasure” (link to the book on this page). This is where the discussion gets into whether arm leads core or vice versa. I must say I got some inspiration for teaching him from this.
Note: In some regard, I find that this is a situation where he truly needs to learn how to use his arms, which is clear to see falls into the realm of the 2nd stage…learning correct hand position.
Now I spend a little more time with him doing repetitions of movements and pay particular attention to whether he is stretching at shoulder and keeping elbow down and not “chicken wing” the elbow out to the side. This seems to alleviate the scrunching and tightening at neck and shoulders. I am also doing this with my other students who started at the same time as Barry. By encouraging him to stretch from shoulder, one can see the proper angles and hand positions improving as well.
After I sent an email to my own teacher on this subject, I recalled his narrative about his student Ernie and how his concentration on relaxing shoulder actually did not work because he was thinking about it too much. I include this link to the Tai Chi Forums (just click) and you just search for Forum 14, do a search for the word “shoulder”.
Although Barry is not really ready for push hands, I thought the "solo" of that movement might be of some use. I see now that doing that solo push hands movement where one can stretch at the shoulder appeals to him. He seems to take to it naturally because of his Karate background . My telling him to stretch did not make much impression, however having him do the one person part solo of push hands seems somewhat intuitive for him.
He does not show scrunching when he does that. So now time will tell if he makes that "transfer" to stretch shoulder lightly, keep elbow down to the rest of the form.
Email from Master Stephen Hwa: Jim: I am teaching a group of not young people here (he is enjoying the wonderful climate in Florida after many years living in snow country). I do not expect them to really learn the whole form. So I started them on some of the silk reeling exercise including the "moving arm up while engaging the core". It is a hit to everyone. They love it. I know this is an upside down approach. But, if they enjoy it and getting somethng out of it. Why not? With our methodology of teaching this move, we do not need to follow the old tradition which teaches this only after ten years of tai chi training!
Now a day one needs to keep student's interest otherwise they leave. Learning this kind of internal movement seems really appreciated by even the beginners.