If you haven't been exposed to martial arts much, it might (or might not) surprise you to know that martial artists are very competitive about their styles. Practitioners who spend all their time in one particular style of martial art will almost invariably believe their style to be better than any other. I suspect this is more prevalent among younger people - at least I hope so.

The more experience (and wisdom) a student has, I think, the more willing they may be to see the strengths in other styles and want to study them. I know that many martial artists who study hard, external styles such as Taekwando or Karate for many years will gravitate toward soft, internal styles like Tai Chi to find better balance in their lives.

Bruce Lee was probably the ultimate example of a martial artist who was constantly striving to expand his knowledge. He started out studying Wing Chun, a style of Kung Fu (or Gong Fu), but eventually found it to be limiting. So he adopted elements from many other martial arts and incorporated them into his own style and called it Jeet Kune Do. His notion was of a "style without a style" - a martial art that could adapt and change depending on the style of the opponent.

All Teachers are Not Alike

My two younger sons have just begun to study Wing Chun near their grandparents' house, where they spend much of the summer. This is my youngest (10 years old) son's first true experience studying martial arts, while his brother (age 14) has studied Seven Star Praying Mantis Kung Fu for several years along with my oldest son (age 18).

While I think this teacher is good and competent, I was a bit taken aback to discovered how prejudiced he seems to be against all other styles of martial arts. He seemed to dismiss Seven Star Praying Mantis as a waste of time and boasted of beating every other style that he has ever come up against.

I didn't even bring up the subject of Tai Chi with him (although I sure think he could benefit from it). I merely mentioned that some of the arm movements in one of the Wing Chun forms reminded me of Chi Gung (Qigong) and he seemed insulted. He may be a very good Wing Chun martial artist and teacher, but I think he has a lot of learning to do in life. On the other hand, so do I, I hope.

By way of contrast, my boys' Seven Star Praying Mantis teacher at home has also studied many other disciplines and happily introduces elements of the other arts into his teachings. Between them, I have no way of knowing who is the better fighter (and don't really care), but I know who is the wiser man. The one with the more open mind.

What About Tai Chi?

This has been a long and rambling introduction, I know, but what I've been working up to is this: Tai Chi teachers are no different from other martial arts teachers. There are many different styles and sub-styles of Tai Chi. Some teachers will firmly believe and tell you that theirs is the best Tai Chi. Some may even tell you theirs is the only Tai Chi and may not know there are any other styles. The only thing that really matters is what is the right Tai Chi for you.

Most of the Tai Chi classes being taught are variations of Yang Style Tai Chi. This is a safe and enjoyable style for most people (sort of the Toyota Camry of Tai Chi) performed at a slow, smooth pace without any fast movements or jumps.

Alternatively, Dr. Paul Lam teaches seminars and has DVDs for a program called "Tai Chi for Arthritis." His style of Tai Chi is called Sun (pronounced "soon") and is supposed to be performed a little more quickly, but is apparently even gentler, and especially beneficial for people with joint problems.

Chen and Wudang Tai Chi are two other styles that are older and require more athleticism to perform since they retain some of the jumps and sudden bursts of movement that are holdovers from the original Shaolin Kung Fu roots. These two are also more difficult to locate classes for unless you live near a major city.

Which to Choose?

There are several other Tai Chi variations (and variations of variations) the proponents of which consider to be better than all the others. However, I'm going to go out on a limb here and tell you a secret the purists might not like:

[spoken in a whisper] . . . it . . . doesn't . . . matter . . . [horrified gasps of shock and awe]

Unless you have physical issues that require you to specifically take one of the gentler forms, or you are intent on becoming the world's greatest Tai Chi Chuan fighter and you want to take a class specifically geared toward the martial aspects of tai chi. It doesn't matter what style you study, because what you are looking for is a way to handle stress better, clear your mind and strengthen your body. For that reason, the most important thing is just to get out there and do it.

To that end, you should know that while some lucky people may try a class, fall in love with it and continue with that form for the rest of their lives. Others may have to try a class here, try a DVD there, and then, with luck and patience, discover a teacher or style that works for them.

A Cautionary Tale

My mother, before she passed away last year, had some serious problems with balance and leg strength due to anemia and other physical issues. She decided on her own to try a tai chi class not far from her apartment in New York City (I live near Philadelphia, so I didn't get to see her as often as I would have liked). She was not comfortable and felt very alienated because the teacher seemed to be making no provision for integrating her into the class. She told me she was intimidated because all the other students were much more advanced than she.

When she told me about this during one of my visits I was a bit perturbed. Any experienced tai chi instructor should make it a primary focus to be sure all his students are comfortable. No one should ever feel isolated because they are a beginner or are in any way infirm. I suggested that she try a new teacher and a new class and keep going until she found the right one, because tai chi was exactly the type of activity she needed. I demonstrated some of the form I was working on so she could see how gentle it was, and she was very encouraged and excited about the prospect of trying another class.

Sadly, my mother suffered a stroke only a few days after my visit and never recovered. When I was next in her apartment a couple of weeks later, I noticed an entry on her calendar indicating she had indeed signed up for a new class and teacher.

The lesson here for every Tai Chi Student is that Tai Chi should be for everybody, regardless of age or physical condition, but your first class and teacher may not be the right ones for you. If you don't feel comfortable in the class or with the teacher, don't give up tai chi - try a different class, and keep going until you find one that works for you.

Author's Bio: 

Pete Glaze is the creator, webmaster and principal author of the website www.taichistudent.com, a site written for tai chi students and potential students.

(c) Copyright - Peter E. Glaze. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.