Here's another article on the health benefits of Tai Chi, this time with a headline about the improvement of sleep but covering a fair range of other possible beneficial effects. (Apologies for my own misleading but hopefully attention-grabbing title above.)
It's a better article than many: it does actually show a picture of people doing proper Tai Chi (though all women - what happened to equal representation?); it refers to medical studies; and does not give the impression that Tai Chi is just about waving your arms around and "relaxing". On the down side, it seems to reinforce the mistaken impression that Tai Chi only appeals to seniors, and doesn't really evaluate the studies to which it refers. Perhaps that's beyond the scope of such a piece aimed at the general public, but as the recent Covid crisis has shown, with all its attendant ludicrous conspiracy theories, the level of scientific literacy amongst the general population is still lamentably low. (And before you object, I can't claim to be an expert either.) But would it be too much for the author to suggest that single studies of anything are not likely to be enough to draw hard and fast conclusions? Generally, a reasonable volume of consistent evidence is necessary to form a scientific consensus. One swallow does not make a summer, as the old saying goes, and one paper (possibly reporting a short-term study with a small sample size and which may be vague about the precise nature of the intervention) does not prove a case, though it might provide an indication of where further investigation might be useful.
I am not at all sure that Tai Chi should be marketed purely on medical or quasi-medical grounds. (And again, before you object, in our brave new entrepreneurial world almost everybody teaching Tai Chi is selling something, whether or not they really like to think of it that way; nor am I implying that they are necessarily being dishonest about the claims that they may make, though some of what they say I would regard as passing off opinion as fact.) The benefits of any martial arts practice go far beyond those of health, as any long-term and serious practitioner will tell you, and to expect a scientific quantification of them would seem as silly as wanting to see the advantages of playing the harp or drawing with pastels neatly summed up in a respectable but highly specialised journal. On the other hand, the physical effects of training in a martial art are at least potentially measurable and go some way towards justifying its existence in an increasingly materialistically-minded world.
Perhaps the simplest thing to say is that you need to try it for yourself, for a good period of time, and expect the unexpected; sometimes Tai Chi gives you something you didn't know you wanted. Bear in mind, also, that little of what is truly worthwhile comes too easily and the best outcomes will be obtained if you work hard and are prepared to practise - which can certainly get you nodding off at night.
Someone asked me recently whether there were any styles of tai chi which only focus on relaxation. It is a good question, especially in the light of the idea which seems to persist among the general public of tai chi being a very soft form exercise or, as it says on the NHS website, one which involves "lots of flowing, easy movements that don't stress the joints or muscles". Now, while the NHS's depiction of tai chi is true in some respects, and while I understand the need to promote simple messages to a population which can't seem to grasp nuances, it would not be true to suggest that tai chi can ever be "just" about anything. The great strength of tai chi, it seems to me, is that it is an integrated and multi-functional form of training. It will simultaneously develop your balance and co-ordination, your leg strength, your breathing, memory, concentration and mindfulness, and, yes, your ability to "relax" - along with many other capacities.
In English, the sorts of ideas that come to mind when we use the word "relax" might cover some of the following (here I am quoting from my laptop's thesaurus): to ease up, slow down, de-stress, unbend, rest, put one's feet up, take it easy, slacken off, be at leisure, laze, luxuriate, do nothing. Frankly, you don't need tai chi to help you do any of these things, and, in fact, if you only want to learn to relax more, there are easier and simpler ways of doing it. (The same goes for any of the other benefits of tai chi if you consider them in isolation: if you just want to learn to be more mindful, do a mindfulness course; if you are solely interested in falls prevention, go to a class which deals with this.) However, it remains true that tai chi may very well help you do some of these things - to slow down and de-stress, for example - if you practise and apply what you learn in class to everyday life. It may not feel that way at first, either, given that many people are quite surprised by the strength of the workout that a good tai chi session can give you.
Good tai chi training will certainly not allow you to put your feet up and do nothing! The idea of relaxation which applies in tai chi is really of a very different and much more specific kind. In fact it is so specific that frequently tai chi teachers will use the Chinese term "sōng" (松) or "fàngsōng" (放松) to refer to what they mean instead of the English word, which, as we have seen, carries many of the wrong sorts of connotations. The primary meaning of the character "sōng" (松) is "to loosen". The "fàng" in "fàngsōng" (放松) primarily means "to put or place", though it can also mean "to free or let go". The idea, then, is to loosen or release tension in the body but not in such a way as to make your physical structure collapse, go limp or slack. If we refer back to tai chi's original purpose as a martial art, such "wet noodle" kind of "relaxation" would obviously be useless. Instead we are seeking to take away any extraneous stiffness which makes movement inefficient or slows it down. (Yes, I know that that is a paradox: we learn to move slowly so that we can learn to move quickly! Tai chi training is full of such apparent contradictions.) To do this, we need to work out how to align the skeletal structure so that it is able to support us properly, the stabilising muscles can work with as little effort as possible and joints can move freely. Then we can move by transmitting energy from the ground upwards in a way which feels smooth, springy and "alive".
Given that people are invariably much more tense and stiff than they think they are, this process of learning to release the chronic and mainly unconscious tension which accumulates in our bodies, simply as a result of living, takes a fair amount of time but is also a process which has to be undertaken consciously and deliberately. In fact, that character "fàng" (放) in "fàngsōng" is the same word as you would use if, for example, you wanted someone to "put" sugar in your coffee, so I wonder - and I am no linguistic scholar, so this is just a speculation - whether the Chinese term implies that we should "put" looseness into our bodies in a very deliberate way. "Relaxation", then, from this point of view, becomes an intentional process which is led by the mind; it becomes, to begin with at least (and for a long time afterwards), something active rather than passive.
Obviously, a mind which is itself tense and inattentive is not likely to be able to achieve this. The mind, therefore, needs to drop everyday concerns and avoid distractions during your tai chi practice. The mental focus needs to be on what is going on internally while you are carrying out the various tai chi movements. This in itself is quite tricky, which is why many teachers now use standing practices, simpler exercises such as our silk-reeling drills and qigong quite extensively; the easier movements (or lack of substantial movement, in the case of standing meditation) allow beginners to listen to their bodies more carefully and deeply because they are not having to worry about remembering a sequence of movements. It is also important, I think, to avoid the tai chi itself becoming a source of mental tension. The mind cannot relax if it is tired, frustrated or annoyed, so if you find that your training is giving rise to these sorts of feelings, be kind to yourself and perhaps go back to a simpler form of exercise (such as silk-reeling), revert to some movements that you know really well or just practise in a freer way, worrying less about performing the moves correctly and simply enjoying the feeling of flow and spontaneity that emerges.
(It is beyond the scope of this piece to deal with the connection between the emotions and the release of the physical body. Suffice to say here that it is possible - though uncommon - that during your practice the loosening of bound physical tension may result in the welling-up of suppressed emotions. This may simply come as a surprise or may even be rather painful, but is not necessarily a problem - seek the advice of your teacher or a professional if you become concerned.)
Clearly, then there is a good deal, both physical and mental, to the concept of "relaxation" in tai chi. Different schools and styles will focus on it to varying degrees, but to my mind it is only one of the many aspects of tai chi that make the art so powerful, albeit a very important one. It is also an aspect of tai chi that all students will need to keep coming back to, at deeper and deeper levels, over the whole lifetime of their practice. Even "masters" need to keep working towards the goal of the perfect balance between yin and yang which Chen Xiaowang puts in these terms when he describes the fifth of the five levels of tai chi:
the hard complements the soft and movements should be relaxed, dynamic, springy and lively. Every move and every motionless instant is in accordance with taiji principles, as are the movements of the whole body. This means that every part of the body is very sensitive and quick to react when the need arises.
If this seems like a demanding goal to aim for, just relax (in the tai chi way) and enjoy the journey that you will need to take to get there.
This is the first of what I hope will be a number of articles aimed at the beginner which will be informed by medical research and dealing with fundamental aspects of taijiquan training.
I will begin with the breath, because, although you will not be focusing a great deal upon it right at the beginning of your taijiquan practice, it is a topic of considerable importance, not least because it has an impact upon your health to a bigger extent than many people realise. I say that you will not necessarily spend a lot of effort on focusing on the breath to begin with because most people find that there are too many other aspects of physical movement to co-ordinate right at the start of their training. You will almost certainly find it easier to pick up the breathing patterns of the qigong or silk-reeling exercises than when you work on your taijiquan movements, and the advice that I generally give at that point is simply to let the breathing take care of itself. It is, after all, something that we do a lot of, entirely automatically, every day of our lives!
However, that is also the problem: precisely because our lungs are able to function without any conscious intervention, we generally do not pay our breathing patterns any attention at all. So why, when we practise our taijiquan, should it be any different?
In the first instance, it is because certain patterns of breathing are inefficient. When we are exercising, we clearly want our breathing to be as efficient as possible, and this means adopting an abdominal breathing technique: we expand the lower abdomen when we inhale, using not just the "stomach" muscles but also the sides, lower back and perineum, as well as allowing the diaphragm to move downwards in order to create as much room for the lungs in the chest cavity to expand as fully as possible without strain. For some people, this is roughly how they breathe anyway and in taijiquan or qigong training is called "natural breathing".
However, others have developed a habit of chest breathing, in which the breath is held much higher up in the body: these people use the upper chest or upper back and the intercostal muscles (between the ribs) and consequently breathe much more shallowly. This type of breathing is associated with stressed emotional and psychological states and can be very tiring. Deeper, slower, abdominal breathing on the other hand, is more calming. What, after all, are we always told to do before entering a situation, such as a job interview, which is making us anxious? Take a deep breath!
Even if you are not interested in the fighting aspects of taijiquan, it is always, in my view, important to refer back to the martial origins of the art. In a combat situation, the fighter who is in control of her breath and can use it to help her to stay calm and focused (instead of panicky) has a better chance of success. Abdominal breathing also helps to bring our attention to the core of the body, or what, in taijiquan and other traditional Chinese arts is called the "dantian". The dantian is considered to be of prime importance in taijiquan as the energetic centre of the body which controls and transmits the movement generated by the legs and feet to the upper body. It is also particularly important to be in control of the dantian region when emitting power ("fajin"), such as when, in Chen-style taijiquan, we punch. Even when moving more slowly, you will probably find yourself exhaling on the moves which envisage striking.
So far, therefore, we have three reasons for wanting to breath well in taijiquan: it is more efficient, is calming and allows us to co-ordinate the breath and our movements for martial effectiveness. However, the way in which we breath has wider implications for our health. For example, it has been estimated that up to half of modern adults breath through their mouth too much. You should generally be breathing through your nose while practising taijiquan. Mouth breathing, on the other hand, can lead, amongst other things, to upper-chest breathing as well as the drawing of less well-humidified and filtered air into the lungs. The latter effects can lead to infection, as well as the thickening of internal secretions which in turn inhibits the uptake of oxygen.
Furthermore, proper nose-breathing allows the greater uptake of nitric oxide which is produced in the nasal sinuses. Nitric oxide seems to have a range of health-promoting effects, including dilating the airways and blood vessels (again improving oxygen uptake), lowering blood pressure and resisting viral, bacterial and fungal infection. Another gas which nasal breathing helps to balance properly is carbon dioxide. While CO2 is currently a great problem for us in the earth's atmosphere, in our bodies it helps to promote the release of oxygen from our blood into our body tissues, while breathing too much through the mouth ("overbreathing") inhibits this effect. It was not for nothing, then, that one of my early tai chi teachers always used to say, "Noses are for breathing, mouths are for eating".
The apparently simple subject of breathing is more complex than it first appears, therefore, and later in your training you will be taught more advanced techniques such as "reverse breathing". Those who are interested may find more on this topic here.
If you are interested in more information about the medical effects of effective breathing, here is a good place to start.
At the beginning of your tai chi journey, however, it may be enough simply to remember what another of my teachers always used to say when asked by a beginner about what they should do about breathing when practising a particular exercise. His reply was often just, "Don't stop!"*
*PS: this is not entirely a joke. People often hold their breath when trying something new, difficult or stressful.
Making Progress in Tai Chi Chuan
By Fu Neng Bin
How can Tai Chi beginners, who have no foundation in its practice, learn quickly? What is the fastest way for the average Tai Chi practitioner to improve? These are matters of concern to both Tai Chi enthusiasts and teachers equally.
Nowadays many people have integrated Tai Chi into their daily lives, with research showing that there are over one hundred million practitioners worldwide. Over the years Tai Chi teaching and practice have not followed any one specific methodology, with each person following their own path. There is still no standardised way of teaching. In the old times there were sayings like: “10 days to learn a move” or “three years, one small change”. This, however, doesn’t suit the fast-paced rhythm of modern life, and may seem discouraging to many beginners. I believe it is important for Tai Chi to follow an efficient and flexible structure methodology, which is both comprehensive and scientifically based. My personal experience is based on years of training and teaching, studying and exchanging ideas with other Tai Chi practitioners. Below is a summary of a few insights I would like to share.
1.The combination of theory and practice.
Firstly, we should be familiar with the theory underpinning Tai Chi Chuan. We need to understand its origins and basic requirements, the styles and characteristics, its essential principles, technical aspects and the nature of its movements. There are some common principles to all the styles but also clear differences. It is essential to know the requirements and rules of footwork, postures and movement. The teacher’s introduction to this is of great importance. For example, in Chen style when opening the stance forward or to the side, the inside of the heel touches the ground first. This is not the case in other styles. Only if we understand the basic principles we will be able to learn the forms correctly. But after theory comes practice and experience. Some learners feel frustrated because they cannot remember what they have been taught. Although Tai Chi may look easy, achieving a good level of skill is not. One must train frequently, carefully imitate a teacher, and also study the theory in order to master the movements. Training in this art over time, the practitioner will become more confident, not only in Tai Chi but also in life in general.
2. The basic skills: open hand forms and push hands must be learned simultaneously.
Basic skills for training include stances, footwork, routines for solitary and partner practice, and exercises for joints and ligaments. Practising basic skills on a daily basis for some time is extremely helpful for the overall improvement of Tai Chi Chuan. Since ancient times, it has been said: “If you don’t incorporate all the components, your training will be empty”.
In addition to repetition of basic movements (silk reeling), it is also important to practice the open hand forms. This should start with short introductory routines to practice and master over time then longer traditional ones. Learning open hand forms and practising push hands at the same time produces even better results. Some believe that by learning the open hand forms, one can learn push hands but there is no proof of this. In fact, while practising on your own will develop self-awareness and personal skill, practising with a partner will allow you to get to know your opponent and to respond to their actions accordingly. Open hand and push hands practice are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.
3. From square to round, from high to low, from simple to complex.
It’s inevitable that we start off with rigid and fragmented movements. Beginners tend to remember partial sequences and find it difficult to perform smooth and full circular movements. With time and correct guidance, the practitioner will learn to relax slowly and achieve a more integrated and round quality to the movement.
The routines may be practised with high or low stances, but this depends on age, physical condition, experience and level of martial arts, etc. All practitioners should be treated individually. Beginners and those not in good health conditions should practice with a high stance to correct and get used to the right posture and movement, improve their flexibility and strengthen their legs. Gradually they will find it easier to drop lower into the stances as their flexibility improves, but it’s important this progresses naturally, at the practitioner’s own rate. The stance’s height depends on the length of the step: lower stances require longer strides. It is a common mistake to combine a short step with a low stance – even some experienced practitioners tend to forget to take longer steps when adopting low stances. The quality of the stance directly affects the intensity of the practice.
Each learner has their pace of improvement, regardless of the practice. The complexity of the steps, hand positions, direction, location of all the parts of the body, and the overall performance of the routine can also be explained progressively. For example, in the first movement of the open hand form – the opening of the stance, the path and alignment of the hands, the direction of the palms, their position in relation to the shoulder's width and height – can all be taught in a simplified or a more detailed way. Gradually, the hand and footwork can be improved – the turning of the waist, the gaze, the breathing, rhythm, spirit, and other aspects of the practice – may be taught and understood step by step. However, practitioners who want to account for everything from the outset, and who question and over-think every movement, will only end up in confusion.
4. First the parts, then the whole; First the external, then the internal.
In the practice of Tai Chi Chuan, coordination and full body awareness can be quite challenging, so it can be much easier to initially separate the body into different segments. These typically are: the head, upper extremities, torso and lower extremities. After control over each part is mastered, two or three parts can then be combined. Finally, the practitioner will be able to work with the whole body as one unit.
In addition, a set of movements can be categorised as offensive or defensive. Qualities like the use of power, breathing, gaze, and so on, can be progressively integrated into the practice, following a structure.
Tai Chi has a clear distinction between the internal and the external. The external deals with how the movements look and other specific aspects of the performance. The internal, on the other hand, focuses on changes of consciousness, intention and movements of inner strength and energy. Both aspects are of equal importance. For beginners, the appearance is the key. Some practitioners from the very beginning become obsessed with the quest for inner strength and focus on achieving some special inner feeling, which is not useful at that stage. As the saying goes, "the slightest difference, lost thousands of miles". Without the correct external form, it will be difficult to understand the correct internal movements of Tai Chi. When practicing each movement or posture, the entire body has to be coordinated in order to achieve the correct internal flow. Once the form is performed proficiently, we can address the internal aspect of Tai Chi. Without its internal qualities, Tai Chi will be tedious and empty, so it has to be understood, experienced and perfected from within. In order to experience internal strength, the initial stage of training is to develop a feeling of Qi. At first, rather than focusing on the whole body, it’s better to concentrate on a specific part or point. Start by focusing on the Qi at the Dantian and at the hand. As the upper and lower bodies learn to relax and the Qi sinks into the Dantian, more internal strength will be accumulated. This power expands and contracts from the Dantian, and is emitted and recollected by it. So step-by-step, as the forms improve by in-depth study and practice, both internal and external, the internal strength will begin to develop and grow.
5. Diligent Mouth, Diligent Ear, Diligent Eye, Diligent Body, Diligent Brain.
Knowing the road helps people to avoid going astray. Practice creates a multiplier effect. I hope these personal opinions and experience can help Tai Chi enthusiasts.
There's a great post from Steve Rowe, gentleman, warrior and, apparently, Obi Wan Kenobi impersonator, here:
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.
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.
Sam Moor teaches Chen taijiquan in Sussex and was, for a short time, a class-mate of mine before I went to China. He has a very clear and straightforward approach to his tai chi, which I like. Here is a video of him talking about tai chi; he covers a lot of good basic background information and has some good advice to offer for those in the early stages of learning.
There's a basic article about tai chi here from "Men's Health" magazine. There is a reasonably good explanation of some of the training benefits, though the picture editor can't seem to find pictures of guys actually doing tai chi...
Andrew Howard is a Chen-style Tai Chi Instructor teaching in West Dorset, UK.