It was to be my first experience practicing tai chi in a room filled with other people at the week-long Tai Chi Retreat on Whidbey Island, Washington this summer. I had finished learning the last third of the form about a month prior through an online class. I was anxious and internally repeating the mantras, “I can do this. I can do this without looking ridiculous.” Clearly, I have a bit left to learn about the mental and spiritual aspect of tai chi.
We began: Ward-off Left. “I can do this...” Ward-off Right. “This is going to be okay...” Rollback. “Wait, what the _ _ _ _ is happening right now!?” All I can see are variations of speeds, angles, and motions. “Are we all doing the same thing? Did I maybe learn this wrong? Who should I be copying? At which pace do I go? Do I just try to average out the speed of everyone within my range of sight? What is…?” (brain overload). Rotate to Single Whip. The leader is back in view. "Oh, okay. This is recognizable.”
I don’t remember the rest of that round. I think it is safe to assume my execution was not impressive. What I do remember is a sense of exhilaration and inspiration, with a surprising lack of embarrassment. It was my first of many lessons learned during the retreat.
While it would have been odd to have complete uniformity in that first practice, it was interesting to see the group evolve over the week and slowly morph to a more uniform approach. Everybody was at different places in their journeys with unique needs and goals for their practice.
I was asked to write a blog about my experience since I am one of those new “tai chi-ers" who came to the practice entirely from the virtual world. I was hesitant given my limited knowledge of tai chi. Yet, I think it is worthwhile to consider the benefits that have occurred through virtual teaching, though I now see virtual teaching as more of an augmentation to in-person instruction rather than a replacement. While my understanding of tai chi will certainly evolve in days, months, and years to come, perhaps my early experiences demonstrate how the combination of virtual and in-person instruction can work in tandem and reinforce one another.
I found learning the tai chi form through Zoom to be a wonderful experience with many positives. The lessons themselves are similar to live instruction, and the benefit of receiving a video of the class to rewatch as needed during the week cannot be overstated. At those times when I was unable to practice for several days after a class, I often found myself lost trying to remember new material – an easy problem to fix when I could go back and rewatch the part of class that had escaped me. Or if I was struggling with a specific movement, I could go back and watch for hints or details to help me fix my problem spots.
Further, in a virtual class there was also no worry about my progress compared with other students because I was only seeing the teacher on my screen as I learned. But the most beneficial aspect of virtual teaching for me is the expanded access. So many people such as I have no real opportunity to take tai chi classes without virtual teaching. The idea of tai chi being available regardless of location is an overwhelming positive both for the public and for the art of tai chi itself.
However, having now experienced the practice of tai chi with other participants in person, I can say that like many other activities, nothing beats the live experience. While tai chi helps us find and direct our own energy, there is an element of community involved as well. We don’t exist alone on this planet. There is energy all around us. Doing tai chi in a group felt like a way to connect my energy with that of others. In a virtual setting, you can’t replicate breathing the same air or seeing, smelling, and hearing the same things. With others in the room, I felt connected to and in some ways a part of their energies. In this way it became a more life-affirming experience for me.
Other benefits of in-person practice include more interaction with both teachers and students. Teachers could more easily see and address our needed corrections. Discussions with fellow students on details and struggles helped ease worries about our weaknesses and highlight the nature of tai chi practice as a never-ending journey.
One thing we are hopefully learning from the COVID experience is that we need human contact. We benefit when we can connect with others regardless of what we are doing. I have experienced this continually in my life as a musician. Musicians can generate all the virtual performances we want, but there is an important element lacking without a live audience. The energy of a performer is affected by the energy of an audience. There is a give and take that is simply not replicated through a live stream.
It is great that the virtual world has increased access to all sorts of activities, but we should constantly be on guard against letting it overtake the more visceral experience of live interaction.
This was made clear to me by the things that I took away from my weeklong experience of the tai chi retreat. What remains with me are moments-- a sense of calm experienced in group meditation, a moment of clarity in a pose, a laugh shared with new friends. These are much more concrete in my mind than the totality of what I learned virtually because there is an element of human connection associated with them.
I treasure all the experiences and personal connections I made during my week of in-person tai chi practice this summer on Whidbey Island, and I hope to find a way to make that happen again in the future.
For now, though, I feel lucky to have the opportunity to continue my tai chi journey through online classes this upcoming fall. There are so many wonderful teachers and classes available it is a great time to start, restart, or continue formal study whether in person or online.
All of us who practice tai chi come to it through different means with different needs and goals. The fact that it is now more available and widespread can only be a good thing for the world.
Mel Mobley teaches music composition and theory at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. He performs as a percussionist with symphonies and chamber groups in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas. He is a founder and coordinator of the New Music on the Bayou Festival that highlights the connection between music and the natural world. Mel’s compositions have been performed throughout the United States and abroad.
Mel has been learning tai chi since 2021. A native of Texas, he currently resides in Monroe, Los Angeles with his blind dog, Maggie.
Photo by Andrew Moca