“Check your brain in here

Occasionally folks who come to try out my taijiquan (t'ai chi ch'uan) class will "turn up their noses".

"It's too complicated," they say in an accusing manner, as if I've deliberately tried to make them look stupid by giving them an impossible task or required an "anal" level of detail.

They want to "flow" or "move their spirit" or "be one with their mind and body" or some other vague new-age concept. They identify taijiquan with such concepts and they expect to be "naturally good at it". Experts even. All without having tried it before. After all, they might have gone to some qi gong (breathing exercise) classes, meditation courses or something similar, where all they had to do was sit or stand, “breathe”, chant mantras and maybe do some basic macro body movements like swing their arms loosely. And that was all "natural".

Or maybe they went to a yoga class where their genetic flexibility made them feel automatically "at home". The activity came "easy". Even if there was a certain level of physical difficulty (and even if they happen to acknowledge that there is certainly much, much more to learn about the finer details of yoga), they didn't feel awkward or "out of their comfort zone" ("unlike that poor middle-aged man in the corner who couldn't touch his knees, never mind his toes!"). They weren't "beginners" (or, at least, they didn't feel like beginners).

But invariably when I turn around after demonstrating, I see that the people who have such attitudes are the least likely to be doing anything remotely approximating what I've shown: They have the wrong foot forward, wrong arm forward. They are moving in the wrong direction and at the wrong angle and speed. Basically they are likely to be doing the exact opposite of what I've shown. And all the while, they have disdainful, even disgusted, looks on their faces. They come expecting to feel an immediate sense of achievement - superiority even. They came to the class expecting to be able to "check their brains in at the front counter". Instead what do they find? They have to use their brains after all - and on some "tedious sequences" and "stupid details" that make them feel "uncomfortable"! For shame!

It is not unkind to say that such people are, in fact, useless at taijiquan - but not because of a lack of coordination or other talent. They are useless because they won't even try. When they find that it is not something that they can do without effort, they get cranky. And I get the blame - even though I’ve spent the entire lesson patiently explaining, demonstrating, correcting etc. (at a pace that is suitable for them).

The same applies to more physical/fighting styles of traditional martial arts; these might be targeted at a different "audience" but they face the same objections: "It's too complicated - I know I can fight, so why are you making me look bad by giving me these useless things to do that I can't do (and no reasonable person would want to do)? This is so lame."

Such a response is particularly galling for a teacher like me who pours heart and soul into each lesson and always gives students the benefit of the doubt. But in the end I know you can’t take it personally. You have to nod, smile and carry on. As my teacher said to me many years ago: "Studying the martial arts was never meant to be a popular pastime." Such study takes a lot of patience, hard work and dedication - which are rare, particularly in today's consumer-based, "instant gratification" culture.

So I tell new students: "Don't expect to check your brain in at the front counter". If that is your intention, there really isn't any point in turning up in the first place.

In this respect, studying a traditional martial art is no different to studying calligraphy, fine art or a musical instrument. You wouldn't expect to turn up at a violin lesson and "just start playing". And if you failed to “just start playing” you wouldn't blame the activity for being "too complicated" or your teacher for being “anal about detail”.

In the same vein, don't expect a traditional martial art to be something you can do without expending both physical and mental effort. It necessarily involves "gong fu" (功夫) - expertise in a skill achieved through hard work and practice. If you don't have sufficient interest, patience, diligence and perseverance to acquire martial skill, acknowledge this - don't blame the art or the teacher.

My friend Russ Smith recently reminded me of this quote by Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC):
    “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.”
This is worth remembering. Training in the martial arts involves years of focussed, habitual activity. It doesn't involve an activity where you can "switch off" (eg. in the way that you can when you listen to your iPod while pounding a treadmill) – however popular, beneficial and laudable such an activity might be. Studying a martial art requires your undivided mental attention and your best physical endeavor.

It requires you to be out of your comfort zone - because that is the only time you are really learning.

If this isn't for you, be honest and acknowledge it. We all have things in which we don't particularly want to invest time - so there's no shame in this. The only shame arises when you try to blame someone else for your lack of interest, patience or diligence in acquiring a particular skill – or for the fact that acknowledging this "makes you feel uncomfortable".

However if you come to one of my lessons expecting to be out of your comfort zone - prepared to apply yourself mentally and physically - I can promise you that you that, whatever your circumstances, you will get the benefits. Unlike learning the violin, you will be "playing something" by the end of the first lesson. After a month or 2, you might even be "playing a full tune"! This is because martial arts involves considerably more "macro" movement than playing a musical instrument. It might not be easier to perfect, but it is easier to "get started". And I can promise you that I will be doing my absolute best to help you every step of the way.

On the other hand, if you "check your brain in at the front counter" I can guarantee that you won't learn a single thing, regardless of my efforts. You'll have wasted your time. And mine.

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. I have a 'student', someone that I may have for all of ten lessons before we part and perhaps never meet again. My 'crash' program for a beginner by necessity is to cram as much into him that I think is important and hope will stick, and it is turning out to be 'the big things'. Principles, what to look for, and what to avoid. Last week I told him, 'There is a martial arts phrase that one needs to empty ones' cup upon entering the dojo. Just remember, check the ego at the door...not your critical thinking ability.'

  2. Sounds like you often have very annoying students pop into your dojo often...It makes sense--everyone thinks taiji is easy because they move slow. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a lay person go "Man, I can do that."

    Haha, they have no idea. I took some classes on taiji and bagua a while back before I had to move, and it is anything but easy!

  3. That's right Narda - you check your baggage in, but not your mind.

    There aren't too many of these Joshua, but let's just say that a bad taste lingers!

  4. I am currently in shinkendo, which is mainly 4 hours of training per week, divided evenly between aikijutsu (atemi and various other stuff in normal aikido) plus shinkendo (which is Obata's own particular methodology for teaching kenjutsu).

    While I never expected it to be easy, I am able to grasp a lot of concepts there simply because I had TFT as a solid foundation.

    From what I've seen from Joanna Z's videos, Tai Chi wouldn't be a bad fit given what I've learned. A lot of things would understandable given the parallels or similarities.
    And what practical applications are not taught, I can re-engineer or back-engineer once i saw the movements.

    A 100% pure beginner should not be able to do that, unless they are just protege geniuses that can reverse engineer techniques the first time they see them. Not many of those floating around.

  5. "In this respect, studying a traditional martial art is no different to studying calligraphy, fine art or a musical instrument."


  6. What an excellent post, Dan.

    The older I get the less tolerance I have for such students.

    It's what Sifu Bruce said about one needing to empty one's cup, isn't it? I'm sure he was quoting some other disgruntled zen master! :-)


  7. Thanks Colin!

    Btw, I haven't forgotten IAOMAS - just flat out lately (hence no recent blog posts either!). We should get together shortly.



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