Quite a lot of people start tai chi. Relatively few make it beyond fairly basic levels of competence. Every tai chi teacher has to learn to accept that there will be a certain amount of turnover in their groups of students. I don't know whether the retention rate is any worse in other sports and activities, but I suspect that actually it might be. Why should this be?
Sometimes the teachers only have themselves to blame. I have heard of teachers emphasising at the very first class how difficult tai chi is and how much you have to practice to become good (as if that is somehow going to motivate raw recruits rather than putting them off). Some refuse to adapt to the needs and capabilities of their students, insisting that they will only teach in the way that they were taught, in the "traditional" way, or in the way that you have "got" to learn in order truly to understand the art. All of these approaches are flawed, in my view, but my reasons for saying that will have to wait for another blog entry.
If you find yourself with a good teacher, however, you will still notice that students come and go. To some extent, life gets in the way: work and family arrangements change, illnesses happen, plans are disrupted. All one can do in such a situation is adopt the Daoist mentality of "going with the flow", accept the change but perhaps (because Eastern philosophies are not as fatalistic as they are sometimes portrayed) look for opportunities in the future to work with the current of events and get back to class - even if that means looking elsewhere.
Other students drop out quickly, finding that they simply do not like the teacher, the class or the exercises that they are being asked to carry out - there is a lack of an emotional connection almost immediately or even an active dislike. That's fair enough; there needs to be this emotional connection to carry you through the early days of learning in particular, because the other factors that can make the study of tai chi so addictive may not emerge till later.
Some students will stay for a while, but then their attendance fades out over time. The reasons for this can be more complicated. It has to be said that very few people really know what tai chi is when they first attend a class. Although one can try to explain one's view of the art (and, frustratingly, every teacher will have a slightly different attitude to this), I think that you can only obtain a realistic feeling for what tai chi can do for you by trying it out, and, unfortunately, trying it out for a good period of time: months or even a year or two. Many people who give up do so before this threshold is reached. The media are also enormously powerful in today's culture and most people have powerful images of what tai chi involves from publicity photos or video, film (including some hilariously silly martial arts movies) or even BBC idents. Needless to say, such images are almost always very wide of the mark.
Other students will have unrealistic expectations for other reasons. We live in a very results-oriented culture, one which encourages us to look for instant rewards and tangible benefits in the short term. We are taught to want big changes quickly, maximum "bang for our buck". Now, I believe that you should feel some benefit after your first lesson - but it is likely to be subtle and if you don't pay attention you can miss it. It might simply be the feeling of calm that descends when you do a breathing exercise, or the slight ache that appears in your quadriceps muscles the following morning. Over time, these benefits will accrue as your skill and experience increase, but tai chi is, for better or worse, a system that works slowly but deeply and somehow these incremental changes are not considered to be "enough". And because the benefits emerge slowly, people don't always realise how much progress they have actually made. How to measure this progress in order to give students a clearer idea of how they are improving is a problem that I am thinking about at the moment.
Other students again are, frankly, too passive. They want the teacher to do all the work and do not feel the need to engage themselves in the process. It's another result of consumer culture: we are too used to paying our money and being given a product that will conveniently fulfil our desires (or so we think). Now this is not to absolve the teacher of any responsibility; if a student is not understanding something or able to do something, it is absolutely my job to find different ways of presenting the material so that they have the best chance of grasping it. But I can't teach a stone: the student needs to meet me at least half way by trying to work out what works for them, developing little personal tricks that will help them remember, and, most importantly, by practising.
While it is possible to come to class and then forget about everything that you have done there until the next week, while still gaining some small benefit, your progress is, I am afraid, going to be glacially slow. But even a little bit of practice will reap rewards and I have written before about some ways in which you can build some practice into your daily or weekly routine. One of the other things that you can do is to set yourself some goals: it might be to master a particular move before the next class, to find a way of reminding yourself to be mindful of your breathing during the day as you go about your daily tasks, to make time to hold a short practice session of ten to fifteen minutes three times a week, to perform two of the qigong movements daily for a fortnight without missing a day, or some other small but measurable target that you can hold yourself to. As they say, nothing succeeds like success, and a series of "baby steps" that you have managed to take will give you confidence that you are able to move a long the great road that is taijiquan and will inspire you to want to continue the journey.
Andrew Howard is a Chen-style Tai Chi Instructor teaching in West Dorset, UK.