Reducing Student Drop Out Rates in Tai Chi
by Bill Douglas, Founder of World Tai Chi & Qigong Day
WORD COUNT: 2,720
A couple of years ago while at a national conference of Qigong enthusiasts, I had lunch with several T’ai Chi teachers. One teacher complained that a T’ai Chi class he’d started with nearly 30 students had dwindled to only 6 students by the end of the session. Another teacher at the table exclaimed, “SIX! WOW! That’s GREAT!” We all had a good laugh, but there was pure truth in this exchange. T’ai Chi classes have horrendous drop out rates, even for the best teachers. Oh, we all can point to classes where our drop out rate wasn’t “too bad,” but when we are honest we all can point to plenty that disintegrated before our eyes.
This teacher was a very brave teacher, to be so honest about this drop out phenomenon in his classes, and his honesty enabled all of us other teachers to share information about this problem. Most teachers won’t discuss this. We make up things to protect our egos, or our feelings, like “those students just weren’t ready for the pearls I cast before them,” or something like that. I think because T’ai Chi teachers historically have only come together for “competitions” it has affected our psyches by making us feel we are one another’s competitors, rather than compatriots. This is actually one of the reasons I founded World T’ai Chi & Qigong Day, to bring T’ai Chi & Qigong teachers together in a cause of mutual support. However, the “competitive” schism was even evidenced in this, as teachers who held WTCQD events spoke of other teachers, coming, but not participating. They “peaked around corners” to see what the other schools were up to. We are all so afraid that someone will “find fault” with our style, our school, or the number of our students. This keeps us from sharing information that could grow T’ai Chi for all of our schools, and for the benefit of the public health.
But, back to the original issue, why do people drop out of T’ai Chi so quickly? First, realize that all exercise classes suffer drop out, but T’ai Chi may suffer more for several reasons. Because T’ai Chi benefits are more subtle, students have to hang in there longer to begin to realize the more profound benefits. Also, the very things T’ai Chi helps most with, such as anxiety and balance problems, for example, seem to be exasperated by T’ai Chi before they are helped by T’ai Chi. This is because T’ai Chi first “tests” our balance before it “helps” our balance, and it forces us to “be with” our anxiety, before it can help our anxiety begin to be “exhaled,” or released. This inevitable “hump” is what drives many away from T’ai Chi “before” they actually feel the benefits. After “sharing” with the other T’ai Chi teachers at the conference I mentioned earlier, I became conscious of the dynamics of drop out in a clearer way. After this, when I noticed students becoming frustrated with balance, I offered them this reminder. “Realize, that when we are at home settled back in our easy-boy recliner, our balance is always PERFECT! But, it never gets any better; it just gets worse and worse. By playing T’ai Chi every day, our balance gets better and better because we are always on the verge of losing our balance. This is how the brain and body exchange valuable information that improves balance & coordination.” This little speech does several things: 1) It let’s them know that what they are feeling is normal and o.k. 2) It lets them see that this disorienting feeling of being on the edge of balance loss has a very positive effect. 3) It let’s them laugh, which releases tension. 4) It lets them realize that by feeling “out of balance” they are not only not WRONG, but they are doing their T’ai Chi JUST RIGHT. The biggest problem most new students have is self-doubt, and a little friendly compassion can be a teacher’s greatest tool.
However, there may be even more to this drop out phenomenon, a more profound reason lying deeper within this “drop out” problem. My T’ai Chi teacher of over 20 years, Master Jennifer Booth, always spoke about what she called “resistance.” Master Booth said that any time we are about to go through profound change in our lives, even when it is for the better, there is a part of us that doesn’t want that change. There is a part of us that feels safe and comfortable with “the way things are.” T’ai Chi & Qigong are arts/sciences designed to foster great positive change in our lives. Often as we practice T’ai Chi over the years we see our eating, drinking, and sleeping habits change in a more healthful way, we become more conscious, more compassionate, and more powerful in all aspects of our life. According to Master Booth, a part of our mind and body senses that going to our first T’ai Chi class is the doorway to an expansive sequence of positive life changes, and the parts of us that want to be “couch potatoes” or “unconscious” of the grandeur of life, rears its head inside us and “lashes out.”
This “resistance” welling up within us is at the core of the reason for most drop out. However, resistance will put on many masks, and by becoming aware of the masks we may affect drop out rate, but much more than that we will not blame ourselves for what we don’t own. The manifestations of resistance well up within the minds of the students, and may manifest as feelings such as:
- I am too clumsy to get this. This is for people “better than me.” (This is the most common reason for drop out.)
- T’ai Chi is stupid, I don’t get it.
- This T’ai Chi teacher is mean.
- This class is going too slow, I need something faster.
- I don’t know if I’m doing this right, I must be doing it “wrong,” I might as well quit.
- I’m going to learn every move perfectly, even if I have to pull a muscle. I’m going to concentrate so hard to get every move right. (These students often burn out, as it is impossible to get every move perfect at first. The body and mind have to loosen over time, with patience and good will.)
So, what can we do as teachers? First of all, we should realize that T’ai Chi is at its very core FUN! This doesn’t mean we have to be stand up comics, but rather that we loosen up and allow fun to well up from the class experience. Like the last student issue, if we “try too hard” to make a “perfect” classroom experience, we squeeze all the fun out of it. By allowing ourselves to “lighten up” and not expect some illusory “perfection” from ourselves our self-compassion will resonate out to the classroom, and students will be less self judging. When we first begin teaching we “try so hard,” by trying to offer endless details and “corrections” of how students move, breathe, etc. Then over time this becomes tiresome, and we relax, and the results are great. Students will learn movements better and better, simply through repetition, through playing T’ai Chi over and over. In fact, if their minds are straining to remember every little detail, their body will tighten and restrict their ability to perform and remember the movements. So, in classes if we give “smaller bites” of movements to learn, there is more time just to “breathe” “relax” and “enjoy” the experience.
I always tell students to come to class for no other reason, than to “breathe,” “relax,” and “let go of the rat race” for an hour or two. Then in a few months they will have effortlessly learned the form, and they can spend the rest of their lives refining it. In T’ai Chi class there are no grades, no deadlines, no competition. I caution students not to bring the rat race into T’ai Chi class, rather let the effortless flow of T’ai Chi’s soothing calming power permeate outward into all aspects of our lives.
I encourage students to give up the idea of “rightness” and “wrongness” in T’ai Chi class, because this is a limiting way to view life. I go into this in detail in my best selling T’ai Chi book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to T’ai Chi & Qigong, but the gist of this section follows. When we grip a pre-conceived notion of “rightness” and “wrongness” when learning T’ai Chi (or when living life) we are constantly denying the effortless reality of our current state of “perfection,” and this causes stress. You see when a beginning student does their very first T’ai Chi move on their very first day of T’ai Chi class, they are doing it PERFECTLY, for where they are at that moment. Their perfection, of course, will evolve into greater and greater perfection over the course of the classes and their lives. By understanding this, they can relax more. Relaxed students are better students. Some teachers may say, “If I don’t continually correct their postures, they may hurt themselves, or establish bad habits.” On the first day of class, I inform students that “they are their own best T’ai Chi coach.” This means that if a movement that I teach doesn’t “feel right” to them, then they should adjust it so that it feels good. Because no two bodies are exactly the same, and in fact their body will be quite different after a few months of T’ai Chi. However, T’ai Chi’s greatest asset is that it allows us to move slowly enough to “feel” what the body is telling us, and to make adjustments so that each movement can feel comfortable and good to the body the student has on that given day. As teachers, we will have many years to provide helpful compassionate tips on improving their forms, and don’t have to force it all down their throats at first. If they feel good, enjoy, and breathe, they will likely keep coming back. If their own self-doubt is exasperated by endless critique they will almost certainly drop out.
Another thing we must do to help students stick with T’ai Chi is to become “health educators.” Most people, even younger Chinese people, know very little about Traditional Chinese Medicine, its profound benefits, and how T’ai Chi is a part of that health system. As teachers, we often bristle from the medical aspect of T’ai Chi, thinking, “I teach T’ai Chi, doctors do medicine.” Years ago I had a very enthusiastic student who was an emergency room physician, and he began to bring me medical articles on T’ai Chi studies. I bristled, thinking that these had nothing to do with me, for I am teaching something “higher” than medicine. But, in the end, his articles and the articles of other doctor and nurses brought to me over the years changed my life and the way I teach T’ai Chi forever. I began to realize a fundamental truth of Traditional Chinese Medicine, that if the student “believes” in the therapy, then the therapy works much more effectively. For, as I passed this information on to my students, they were able to become more patient with the process of T’ai Chi, because the medical research showed them that there would be rewards in the end. Also, this awareness took the “urgency” out of the process and enabled them to “relax open” to even greater benefits. Because time is limited in classes I began to record these T’ai Chi health research studies in class handouts, which eventually became my book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to T’ai Chi & Qigong. With the book I hoped to enable other T’ai Chi teachers to refer their students to the wealth of medical research in its pages as a pre-class primer, so that when their students come to class they could “believe” in what they were doing and be able to “open to” the teachers wisdom in even more accepting way.
Unfortunately, my goal of creating a primer for all T’ai Chi teachers has been misunderstood by many. The title, “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to T’ai Chi & Qigong” put off many teachers, dismissing it as beneath their level of instruction and therefore useless to them or their students. My hope was to create a primer for all students of all styles that would go to the heart of the “essence of T’ai Chi,” “explain medical research,” and “deal with many of the psychological issues that can make life hard for T’ai Chi teachers, before the student takes these issues out on the teacher.” In fact, my goal of sharing the information in my book with teachers and students worldwide was almost surrendered, until some wonderful encouragement and reviews came in from rather extraordinary sources. T’ai Chi Forms Grand Champions, Sifu Hong Yijiao, who represented the United States at the World Wu Shu Championships in Hong Kong in 2000, sent me the following statement. “Sifu Douglas, you take the best parts of T’ai Chi and explain difficult Chinese concepts simply using American culture, not requiring the new student have a grounding in Chinese culture or history.” Then Michael Steward, a Team USA senior coach, and Olympic Martial Arts Referee wrote, “Visionary! If you only get one book on T’ai Chi, then this is it. This book is all you ever needed to know to change your life.” Many other accomplished teachers offered powerful support for my goal of modernizing T’ai Chi instruction. Teachers like Texas University T’ai Chi teacher Ray Abeyta, and San Francisco’s Beyond Anonymous Stress Management Counselor, R. Poccia, who wrote, “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to T’ai Chi & Qigong does for Qigong what Apple and Microsoft did for the computer it’s brought it to the people.”
My goal is to bring centuries of wisdom that is the gift of T’ai Chi & Qigong to the modern audience, so that students will “hang in there” with their local T’ai Chi teacher’s classes. This is the design of my book and the creation of World T’ai Chi & Qigong Day. In order to bring the ancient wisdom to the modern world, we have to allow ourselves to be “flexible” and “open” to the world we are living in, rather than rigidly straining to squeeze the modern world into an ancient framework of thought. This is why I encourage schools in World T’ai Chi & Qigong Day events to avoid wearing “uniforms” or even displaying banners. If we wear sweat pants and t-shirts when we do T’ai Chi, others see themselves doing T’ai Chi. If we hold onto ancient uniforms, we look like an “exclusive club,” somehow “off limits” to ordinary people.
As my book explains in detail, the modern age is a time of great stress on humanity. 70% of all illness is due to stress. ALL of humanity greatly needs tools like T’ai Chi and Qigong, not just as “another neat thing to learn” but as survival tools in the modern age. Bill Joy, Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems explained recently that with the dawn of the information age humanity is going through changes at a speed that dwarfs all of human history combined, and is only getting faster and faster. Psychological studies show that change causes stress. T’ai Chi and Qigong, as discussed earlier regarding “resistance,” were designed to promote and ease the strain of change in our lives. These ancient tools are increasingly becoming the prescriptions for the future. However, we must learn to make them digestible, and tangible to people’s modern lives, and most of all we must make them FUN! If people don’t enjoy them, they won’t practice them. When Chinese people practice T’ai Chi they say they are “playing” T’ai Chi. In the Complete Idiot’s Guide to T’ai Chi & Qigong I strove to expose the philosophy, science, and powerful life expansion tools of T’ai Chi in their most essential reality, as games of life that are fun. Growth can be profound and fun, and T’ai Chi is perhaps humanity’s most powerful lubricant to ease the strain of the future. Let’s loosen up, and have some fun growing.
Bill Douglas is the Tai Chi Expert at DrWeil.com, Founder of World T'ai Chi & Qigong Day (held in 60 nations each year), and has authored and co-authored several books including a #1 best selling Tai Chi book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to T’ai Chi & Qigong. Bill’s been a Tai Chi source for The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, etc. Bill is the author of the ebook, How to be a Successful Tai Chi Teacher (Namasta University Publishing). You can learn more about Tai Chi & Qigong, search a worldwide teachers directory, and also contact Bill Douglas at http://www.worldtaichiday.org