Tai Chi as a group practice vs solo practice

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A group practices the Tai Chi 24 form together for World Kung Fu and Tai Chi day.

I’ve been getting back into teaching Tai Chi classes recently, and one thing I’ve noticed is the distinct difference there is between doing the form solo in your back yard compared to performing it as part of a group. I’ve been doing the form on my own now for years now. I stopped teaching formal classes in Tai Chi way back in 2011, and although I did a few private lesson things, lockdown really saw an end to that. So, it’s been a long time since I’ve been part of a group all doing the form together.

Group practice changes things. Your awareness in Tai Chi should always be this kind of delicate balance of internal and external. You need to stay aware of your internal sense of self, at the same time as not shutting out the outside world. This is, after all, a martial art, not a meditation session. If you’re not aware of what’s going on outside of you then it wouldn’t be much use for dealing with kicks and punches coming your way. But at the same time, Tai Chi does exist somewhere on the mediation spectrum It demands a sense of stillness and awareness over your inner state. Things like the feeling of your balance, your sense of whether your body is expanding or contracting, your centre of gravity (dantien) and where you are moving from all mater, not to mention keeping your mind fixed on the task in hand and your Yi (intention) flowing with the movements.

Doing that on your own is one thing, but when you are performing the form as part of a group, your awareness needs to also incorporate the group. The group seems to naturally develop a speed together. I wouldn’t say that a group of Tai Chi beginners possess the grace and beauty of a murmuration of starlings (!), but something of the same kind of non-verbal communication is going on. You are constantly picking up on little signals from other people that keep the whole group in check. But at the same time you can’t let the other people distract you and put you off your own job.

A murmuration of starlings

Just like Starlings, we are animals too, so we have these subtle senses and the ability to move in groups. If you’ve ever experienced being in a crowd of people that get a bit paniced you’ll know what I mean. The crowd seems to take on a life of its own and move as one.

Of course, it’s quite possible that you can perform Tai Chi with other people and remain blissfully unaware of any of this, particularly if you are new the Tai Chi and your head is so full of trying to remember the moves, or telling yourself off for getting them wrong, that there’s no room for anything else.

As a final thought, my feelings of seeing people doing Tai Chi together have always been a bit conflicted. On one hand it looks cool to see people brought together over a common goal, all silently concentrating and moving in harmony. But on the other, it expresses some of the worst aspects of the Communist ideas that ended up becoming a part of Tai Chi in the 20th century, that people should be ‘all the same’, bland, expressionless, worker units all doing whatever they are told to with no room for individuality.

There is always this tension between the group and the individual in society. The trick is to try and navigate it successfully.