Reading a book about the teaching of tai chi recently (and there are not many of those available, an indicator perhaps of how relatively undeveloped the tai chi "industry" still is), I came across the author advising that in no circumstances should there be any physical contact between instructors and their students.
In today's climate where the extent of harassment and abuse is finally becoming recognised as endemic and widespread in our culture, and as a result of campaigns such as #MeToo, it is not surprising that such advice should be given. And it seems me that it is necessary for all who work within fields that have anything to do with physical training and development to state very clearly their opposition to all forms of harassment or abuse, which are not, incidentally, limited to the sexual: many who work in this area will have heard of teachers who seem to take pleasure in intimidating their students by inflicting on them excessive demonstrations of power or prowess, or who, more subtly, are prepared to manipulate or control them emotionally and psychologically. (I am not saying that such conduct is anything but very rare; nevertheless it is something for which all students should be on the look-out and should not feel that they have to tolerate, no matter how skilful they feel the teacher may be or how invested they may be in the class.)
At the Bamboo Grove Tai Chi School, we are completely opposed to all forms of exploitative behaviour and endeavour to treat our students with respect and professionalism at all times.
However, I do not see that banning of all forms of physical contact within the school as at all desirable. To begin with, at some point, some degree of contact, either between student and student or student and teacher, is going to be unavoidable; taijiquan is, after all, a form of martial art and, even though many students will not wish to train it as such, exercises such as pushing hands are essential for understanding its principles (as well as being fun in their own right).
More fundamentally, however, every higher-level teacher with whom I have ever trained, absolutely without exception, has used hand-on correction as a teaching technique. One of tai chi's great benefits is that it makes us much more aware of the quality of our movement and biomechanical alignments, as well as other aspects of our existence as creatures of energy, blood, bone, muscle and sinew. Tai chi has to be experienced physically and therefore, to be most effective, needs to be taught physically. Other methods of conveying the information may be possible, but verbal instructions, for example, are often very inefficient and prone to misunderstanding. ("Raise your hand a little...No, too much. Good, now relax your shoulder... Relax your shoulder... Now it's collapsed... That's better... But now you've twisted your pelvis..." etc, etc.) It is so much simpler just to move students into the correct position so that they can feel the totality of the posture rather than just focusing on parts of it. (This is not to say that it would be impossible to learn tai chi without hands-on correction, just that the instruction would need to be given in smaller chunks and making progress would probably take longer.)
Nevertheless, as a male teacher working with female students, it is right to exercise a degree of caution. It is right, too, to offer students options rather than assume that their attendance at class implies that they understand what learning tai chi involves and their agreement can be taken for granted. This is why we are now moving to a position where students will be asked to give their explicit consent if they wish to receive hands-on correction and we also offer a guarantee that, if they wish to retract that consent for any reason, they will be able to do so without fear of having to enter into any sort of discussion or justify their change of mind.
It is far more preferable, it seems to me, to be open and honest about the issue, rather than leaving it as a grey area which might result in misunderstanding or anxiety.
Andrew Howard is a Chen-style Tai Chi Instructor teaching in West Dorset, UK.