The beginners´ class - a lopsided look at the first steps - en artikel om hur man lägger upp nybörjarklasser i träningen, både

The beginners´ class - a lopsided look at the first steps

Be*gi´n*nêr n. 1. a person who begins anything. 2. a person just beginning to do or to learn something; inexperienced, unskilled person; novice. Websters Dictionary of Words

Few things are as complex as teaching a beginners´ class in Tai Chi or qigong. Or maybe not. Maybe it´s exactly the other way around – maybe it´s so simple that it becomes really complicated. Maybe it´s a matter of where you stand, and in what direction you take your first step…to teach them, the very first step.

This entire article starts off with having one assumption already done away with: that you are skilled enough to teach and skilled enough to teach safely. That discussion has been held in a previous article published here. In this one we will try to look at you, the teacher, with the eyes of the people who constantly look at you: your students. Especially the first ones, the ones that exist in the vacuum between the question, ”What is this?” and your answer. The ones who, let´s face it, have paid good money to do it too, and with my finances right now I could have used them someplace else, so I really hope this course is worth it, you know. We´re fitting new carpets in the lounge, but I know my health is important, so… Just saying.


Every beginner turning up to a class in qigong, Tai Chi, or meditation, has a slightly different wish than the beginner standing next to them. They are all pebbles on a beach, most of them looking for roughly the same thing but not quite. Among them will be exceptions to the rule, and they are usually the ones who are ill and don´t want to tell you, ashamed of their own illness or ashamed of the fact that they can´t live life like they once did. A good teacher will spot these immediatly. A good teacher should spot them immediatly, as qigong and Tai Chi and meditation all need to be adapted to the individual. A bad instructor will teach people what he knows. A good instructor will teach people what she thinks they should know. A good teacher will teach them what they ought to practice right now. But each beginner will look at you with slightly different eyes. Some aren´t there to stay at all, no matter how good you are; some will stay, no matter if you´re lousy. Some are there to learn and some are there to find peace from whatever hell they´re living in, and, well, some of them are there just for a change from bowling on Wednesday nights. Some of them will be nice and pleasant, some of them will practice and many of them will not, and some of them will, quite frankly, be slightly batty. Beginners. Every beginners´ class is full of them. All looking at you.


Gertrude is old. Much too old for things to be proper. Strange, though, how she still feels like nineteen inside! It´s just that…darn mirror that betrays her every morning. Sheer insolence. And one day things started to become…difficult. Her legs, who up till then had been fairly good legs, even though she said it herself, her legs, they started betraying her too. And her balance got worse. And, well, she is starting to feel her age, something which Gertrude firmly believes must be wrong. Or at least unnecessary. And now she´s standing here in some room looking at a man dressed in silk pajamas, of all things. And she wants to learn something to feel…well, younger, but that´s not likely, so better. Just better. There´s this exercise where they´re supposed to shift their weight, which she does, even though she feels it in her legs a little. And there are movements, masses of them, and very complicated too. Too complicated, as a matter of fact; Gertrude can´t really follow them, even though everybody else seems to be able to do it. And then the teacher says ”Relax”, with a small, superior smile, but doesn´t look her way at all, and all of a sudden Gertrude, the real Gertrude, the nineteen-year old inside, feels this huge wave of rebelliousness which turns to anger on the surface, and some sort of shame. She can´t do these exercises. All the other students are younger than her, and don´t seem to have any problem at all. Gertrude feels ashamed that she´s so old, the very thing she thought these exercises would help her solve. At the end of the class the nineteen-year old inside goes up to the teacher and asks him why it´s so hard to do and so many movements, with an internal plea from the seventy-six year old on the outside to give her something simpler to do. But no, he says, it will all become better if she keeps on practicing. And that´s it. And Gertrude goes home, anger and shame burning in her, and she doesn´t tell anyone about her first and only beginners´ class.


It starts out as if something has kickstarted your adrenaline. Then the heart starts beating fast, really fast, much faster than it ever should, and then you start getting this horrible, certain premonition that you are going to die. Not just that normal, everyday, I-will-sometime-never-be-able-to-go-back-to-this-great-restaurant-because-I-will-be-dead-then-feeling, but the real one, the certainty. And then you learn it was just a panic-attack, and then you learn that you will survive them, but not when the six other people in the boardroom are looking at you and you´re the only woman there. So Catherine forced herself to take a leaf out of her heavy schedule for relaxation. Now. And now she´s here, doing this class in Supreme Qigong Utter Inducement Relaxation Training Set, at her local gym. The teacher is a young man, rather good-looking, and he´s talking about how these exercises work, and Catherine can´t shift the overdrive in her mind. The balance-sheets for the Hamilton deal…would the time-frame be acceptable for the contacts they made with Sussex? Would the – would the – would the – would – But the exercises actually make her feel calmer. She´s stunned at this, at first, but yes, the slow motion movements of whatsit feel good. The teacher doesn´t seem too bright, but he talks about energy and he talks about internal organs and he talks, at length, about relaxing. The business-woman side of Catherine thinks, critically, that he looks like he does body-building, but folds. Maybe he really does know about relaxation too. Catherine stays the full course, to her own and her friends´ great amazement. She practices at home for a while, but then folds that too. The teacher seemed a little too fluffy on the skill side to engage her. She misses the training sometimes.


John is twenty-two. He does kickboxing. Before that he did judo and combat jujitsu. He has seen some Aikido but it looks…sissy. The sword-stuff looked cool, though. And then one day he read this article about Tai Chi. The Supreme Ultimate Martial Art. All the stuff that Tai Chi was supposed to be able to do for fighting sounded really great. Softness overcoming hardness sounded insane, but, hey, John is smart enough to be open to persuasion. So he goes to a local Tai Chi class. John takes one look at the teacher, a woman in her early fifties, who doesn´t look like she´s got anything on her that isn´t flabby, and has severe misgivings. Then the class starts. Most people in there are old or sick, that´s obvious. But this is supposed to be Tai Chi, the Supreme Ultimate Martial Art. John goes through the exercises, and there are a lot of them. The woman doesn´t look like she could punch her way out of a paper bag – she doesn´t even look like she could defend herself against one. After doing waving, New Age-ish movements for forty-five minutes the class is over. John asks the teacher if she teaches martial arts. She says ”No!” very indignantly. ”Tai Chi is not a martial art! It´s about harmony in your life!” Then John leaves, rather pissed off about the whole thing. Later he takes up this weird russian martial art, where they can actually fight.


Hugh needs something to wind down. And something to make his back stop hurting so much when he´s correcting exam papers at his desk back home over the weekend. Hugh´s a teacher, he´s been one for 24 years and is now 51. Probably less years to the grave than to his birth. Scary thought. So, as general defence against stress (and ageing, even though he doesn´t admit this to himself) he tries to find a class in qigong. Or Tai Chi. Doesn´t matter. They seem to be the same thing. He finds one after calling two other teachers in his area just to see who has the highest quality – so far as he can tell, which he knows isn´t very far at all. Now, in class, he, Hugh, 51 years old, is impressed, he who never thought he´d be impressed again, not after seeing Wardley-Smith, the old headmaster, naked in the school yard during the aptly named ”Old Incident”. The teacher – ha, for once he isn´t a teacher – seems to be good. She´s an English woman in her early forties, and she has been training for twenty years for something she calls ”lineage holders” in Tai Chi and qigong. Hugh notes this in his head, just as he notes that she talks in amazing detail about every movement, and that they only do three the first class. One of them works his back, and for ten beautiful minutes Hugh actually feels as if he has the back he had twenty years ago. It passes, as he glumly expected it to, but the experience is amazing. The woman can´t teach worth damn, not what he would look for in a proper teacher, but at least she explains things thoroughly. Hugh stays. He´s still there, eight years later, going to class every Tuesday night. And even if he does practice at little less than he´d like to, he is still impressed by his teacher, and he still doesn´t feel his back when he corrects exams on the weekend.


Linda is 20 years old. She´s interested in energy. Like, energy stuff, like healing and balancing the chakras so they stay aligned. She´s also deeply into Tarot cards, the Greyen Wytch version, and she dabbles in white magic, which she tells people about, taking care to seem suitably humble, because there is so much more to learn. She´s also heard about chi kung and Tai Chi. Meditation she doesn´t need a teacher in, she´s doing that already out of a book, this version where you imagine a candle lit in your third eye, and then that expands and enfolds you in deep and clear layers of light that cleans up your Astral Body. But chi kung is supposed to teach energy-work as well, so she continues her Search, as she thinks of it. The teacher she finds doesn´t seem to be particularly energetic; just this man in his forties who talks a lot about relaxation and movement, and how you need to stand on the ground, something Linda doesn´t like; all the real stuff concerns the heaven and the starts. But she goes through one class of chi kung, and there´s some deep breathing which is good, but it´s not what she´s used to; this teacher says that you should never ever push your breathing, just let it be really soft and really relaxed all by itself. Afterwards Linda asks him about psychic powers, something she would like to have but doesn´t quite understand, and becomes flabbergasted when he states that it´s not important, just relax. A complete buffon. Linda goes home, and five years later she has injured herself energetically and mentally enough to need serotonin enhancers like Prozac to keep her even slightly connected to reality. If her teacher had told her how dangerous psychic work is and explained why, she might not have ended up where she is. But then again, she might have.


Patrick has MS. Multiple Sclerosis. Remitting. He used to be a builder; now he can´t even lift a bloody chair. His whole life has collapsed. All of it. The version of the disease that he got isn´t the fastest, but it´s not the slowest either. He used to be big and brawny once. Saw his arms yesterday in the mirror. Sticks. Bloody sticks. If he can find any way to get even an inch better, he´ll sell his soul for it. Heard about chi kung. Called the teacher. Got a really long explanation. Then he asked if they taught exercises sitting. No. He can´t stand. He can´t stand. But no, they don´t teach exercises sitting. Patrick never goes to the class.


Beginners. All of them. If they´re in your class, they´ll see you. Question is, will you see them?

© 2004 Daniel Skyle is a freelance writer and Internal Arts teacher based in Sweden.