INB: Instructor’s Notebook—A “Perfect” Lesson

Layers of Teaching

Martial arts hands us examples of the close relationship between what we teach and the way we teach it.

Chinese martial arts lessonAs a sifu, I have experimented with many approaches. Years ago, when I opened my martial arts studio, I tried to orchestrate topics as best I could. Each class was planned like a bank robbery or a wedding: details covered, ideas scrawled in the notebook, library information stacked and shelved.

Of course, none of my classes ever proceeded in so orderly a manner. In the brief moment following each class, I would evaluate my efforts and discover that about 80% of the presented “information” just went whizzing by. On top of that, there was always a richer, deeper batch of information that I never touched on.  Too different, too advanced. How would I ever get to it?

In this Instructor’s Notebook, my plan is to show at least one version of a teaching breakdown that pulls together, in a simple way, diverse and seemingly unconnected information. I rearranged some foundational piers and, to spice it up, I featured a second level of information, by attempting to add clarity to those slippery topics, “Internal” and “External.” This combination proved a particularly difficult agenda, since the Internal play of Yin and Yang is so often excluded from teaching basic movement.

In other words, I created a lesson with more levels than a layer cake.



1. I start with standing practice. This gives the student a “home” to return to when practicing with partners or alone. Most students are calmed by some Qigong-like gathering, and secured by standing.

 2. When the general posture is in the ballpark, I ask the student to shift his/her weight back and forth, still holding the upper body firm. At this point the student may not know it, but I have just introduced elements of Internal and External awareness).

 3. After more reps, the student switches out the front/back movement for circular actions, while still maintaining the suspended posture. They move—but in a relaxed way.

 4. At this point I have my student stop circling and revert to standing practice. The student should develop the ability to enter or leave the state of stillness at will.

 5. Next, I approach my student, put my hands on his or her shoulders, and press down gently and evenly. This simple pressure encourages him or her to read my intent and convert it to balance. While I check for postural alignment, I keep an eye on the student’s lumbar region. I look for a spongy, somewhat flimsy collapse in the lower back. I try to adjust the student’s posture so it shows no softness under this straight -down pressure. This is called “Loading,” a common practice in Chinese martial arts.

6. Finally, they return to the shift/circling practice, continually stopping and checking the postural integrity. Now they are moving, but also aware of the correct posture, the structure beneath the movement. This moving/checking/moving/checking is crucial to understanding and advancing in martial studies.


The Stepping Stones of Skill

After this lesson, one can easily and gently introduce explorations such as Push Hands and Applications, as long as the student remembers the feel of the structural integrity.

One thing I take from this simple method is that the so-called conflicts we see when teaching may be more likely rooted in our own limitations of evaluation. A math teacher, for instance, absolutely knows the difficulties inherent in the coming lesson, and must balance the need to hold back the tough stuff, while simultaneously paving the path to its understanding. “Internal” and “External” instruction is no different; “Internal” and “External” are woven strands of different colors, making the finished fabric strong and beautiful. And I could have used other qualities as an example, such as “Soft” and “Hard.” The wisdom of this integration is one of the many things that makes traditional Chinese martial arts so engaging.

By the way, since I did use “Internal” and “External” in my example, below are some challenges corresponding to a few Key Points of this particular lesson.

1. Internal need not be taught separately.

2. Standing creates authority even in the middle of an application.

3. All Chinese styles, even disregarding what the instructor himself says, progress external-to-internal. And this need not take years.

4. Too often overlooked, the adjusting of Internal to External is an involved, dynamic sparring match inside your living experience. It is unlike the somewhat simpering approach one often finds with vacant stares and floppy wrists. Internal helps External to refine structure. Meanwhile, strange things like faster and faster movement come from the close union between Internal and External, an effect not easy to describe.

5. A conflict of these styles simply does not exist as some people see them. As we said before everyone has to go through the external stage—no exception. The key is to keep going.

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One Response to “INB: Instructor’s Notebook—A “Perfect” Lesson”

  1. Jeff Crook says:

    That is so true about those perfectly-plotted classes. It never works out as well as we imagined it would.

    Nowadays I tend to go into each class with a general idea and maybe a drill or two, and just go with the way the class flows. Usually I see something during warm-ups or basics that triggers the focus for rest of the class. Since the class structure is pretty much set anyway, I don’t end up stressing out because we didn’t follow the lesson plan to the letter.