Gentle Persistence Brings Just Reward.

Taijiquan is known as a martial art that has hardness within its softness “like a needle wrapped in cotton (wool).”

If we look at the popular version of the taiji symbol, we see that there are two halves – a black yin half and a white yang half and that within the yin half there is a yang spot (hardness within softness). We also see that there is a yin spot in the white half (softness within hardness). This brings us to the often cited concept of “tough love”.

zorya_yybIt is often accepted that sometimes you’ve got to be a bit hard on people to help them to succeed at things. Like the sports coach that yells at his players to run faster or hit harder or whatever. As teachers, we know that we cannot indulge the weaknesses of our students if we are to teach them to make the best of themselves. This is Kung Fu all over. Holding your horse stance for longer than you imagined possible and occasionally fighting back the tears in the process. Enduring the hard ulna strikes to your forearms when actually you still feel a bit sore from your last training session. Turning up for training even when you don’t feel like it because your legs are tired or because you feel like a night in front of the television with a takeaway meal. We push and correct and challenge our students precisely because underneath we care about them and their progress. Beneath our stern authoritarian exterior lies a heart that cares about the student and wants them to be the best that they can be.

Then there is the flipside, which I think conjures up the spirit of much of our training. A hard yang spot within a soft yin shell. Gentle persistence brings just reward.

Sometimes Taiji students have personal problems. Perhaps they are just a bit shy or have always struggled with anything physical. Maybe this is why they have come to Taiji in the first place. Maybe they feel anxious sometimes and want to learn how to feel calmer and even a bit less frightened in social situations. Maybe they have suffered from some form of bullying or oppression. Maybe they often feel that their emotions are just a bit too close to the surface and they want to learn how to be a bit more cool, calm and collected.

While we should not “indulge weaknesses”, we can be compassionate in the teaching process. Too much of the “tough love” approach and you might not see such students again for dust. Your rough tough sports coach exterior will only remind them of why they always hated sports at school and maybe they are just not cut out to do anything physical. Maybe they should just find a nice gentle evening class doing pottery or needlework or Spanish. And so their tendency to crane their neck forwards will go on getting worse along with the back problems they have started to suffer because they have a tendency to slouch. And their leg muscles will go on gently wasting away until they get muscle burn just taking the stairs up to bed.

So there is the other approach. The “don’t worry – I used to find this difficult too”, or the “if you just keep practicing, it will come together in the end”. Sometimes you need to point out that it won’t start to feel anything like connected or natural for 6 months or maybe more like 3 years. But it will happen eventually if they don’t worry and stay focussed and keep practicing and softly, gently, persistence will bring just reward.

A little warm-hearted encouragement can go a long way for the under-confident student. Students with lower self-esteem may well need you to point out their strengths, successes and achievements as well as the areas they need to work on, because they are unlikely to know when they are heading in the right direction without your help. Just as an overconfident student may well fail to notice their mistakes without your guidance, so too an underconfident student will often assume that they are doing everything wrong unless you tell them otherwise. The spot of yang reminds us that within our compassion lies the expectation that students will do their best. That they won’t give up. That they’ll push themselves. That they’ll have a go and give it their best shot and if they start to feel a bit demoralised with it all, you’ll be there with a gentle, gentle reminder to pull themselves together. Sometimes you’ll need to stand firm, even when you are wording your corrections as gently as you can, because it is in no-one’s best interests to be over-indulged. Let weakness go completely unchallenged and the student will simply never progress, even if they do keep coming to your classes because you are running such a caring space. Remember that to genuinely nurture others needs toughness too. It isn’t really kind to fail to mention someone’s dodgy knee alignment for fear of hurting their feelings. Nor is it really kind to let someone go on on believing that their techniques would work against an angry attacker, when they wouldn’t really, but they don’t know this because you’ve been feeding them punches that would have missed them anyway because they were really off or short of the target, or so slow and weak that no one would ever really attack them like that.

Armed with both tough love and gentle persistence (or perhaps gentle insistence), a good teacher is able to remain adaptable. Different students in different moods have different needs on different days. Some people just don’t respond to tough love at all and will simply stop coming if you over-use that approach, but conversely, some students will fail to accomplish anything unless you push them because they lack the self discipline to be self-regulating just yet.

You might not always be able to give everyone what they want, but you might find you can give them what they need.



Before her passing, Joanna Zorya, ranked as a Grade A instructor in the UK, was the head teacher of the Martial Tai Chi Association.  Her web site is Her several series of VCDs and DVDs,are all available through Plum:
Joanna’s Instructional DVDs

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