One thing that I found particularly troubling when looking for a Tai Chi school was the lack of knowledge by most of the Tai Chi teachers I encountered. I was hard pressed to find a teacher who could even answer the most basic questions I had and I found that most of them knew less than I did. This is what led me to start my Tai Chi school, because I believe that Tai Chi teachers should be held to a higher standard. They should have at least a working understanding of the philosophy and history of what they're teaching as well as a good amount of experience and the ability to recognize and correct posture mistakes.
So to that end I have compiled a list of questions you could ask a potential teacher to help you figure out if they know the art of Tai Chi and are the right teacher for you. Beneath each question I provide a brief explanation of why I suggest the question and how you can know if they know what they're talking about or not.
Which style of Tai Chi are you teaching or practicing?
This one is pretty basic but I found only one teacher able to answer this question in my search! That's like saying that you are a language teacher but you don't know what language you are teaching, how can you teach the rules and vocabulary of the language if you don't know if it's Mandarin or English?
There are five main traditional styles of Tai Chi with a few lesser known variations.
Chen Style is the oldest of the styles and goes back as far as the seventeenth century. Yang Style was developed by Yang Luchan during the nineteenth century. He was also hired to teach this style to the imperial guards. (This is the style I teach, but I also practice Chen Style.) During the nineteenth century we also see the development of two lesser known styles, Wu Hao an Wu. Sun style is the youngest of the traditional styles and came into being at the beginning of the 20th century.
You can also ask the teacher if they can tell you why they like the style they teach or if they know anything about the origins of their style or how it fits into the Tai Chi family tree. There are a lot of instant online certifications that teach bastardizations of traditional forms or simply mix multiple styles together, often losing the deeper, more meaningful lessons we can learn from them. It is worth making sure that your teacher at least knows what they are teaching and why.
How long did you study to become a Tai Chi teacher and how long have you been doing Tai Chi?
If the answer is that they took a few hours of online seminar and paid a bunch of money to get their certification and that's their only training then I recommend you seek out another teacher. If you don't have at the very least two years practical experience as a Tai Chi student you should not be teaching as far as I'm concerned. Most reputable Tai Chi certifications require a minimum of a 150 hours of lessons taken to be certified as an associate teacher which does not qualify you to teach on your own. The number of hours required to be an independent qualified teacher goes up to 300 hours of verifiable Tai Chi lessons taken. If you do the math, if you're taking Tai Chi classes twice a week for an hour at a time for one year that should give you about a 100 hours accounting for holiday and sick days.
Can you talk briefly about the Yin-Yang philosophy and how it shows up in Tai Chi?
Yin-Yang philosophy is central to the understanding of Chinese traditional medicine, the Chinese understanding of how energy (and breath) flows as well as how to overcome a much stronger and bigger opponent in combat. Therefore it is central to the understanding and practice of Tai Chi. Even the opening form is an expression of yin-yang energy rising up and then sinking down with the breath. Breath is an intricate part of the Tai Chi practice (the word "Qi" means both breath and energy) and an expression of yin-yang energy with inhalations being more yang and exhalations being more yin. Therefore the breath should match the movements and not having any understanding of how the two are related and how they relate to yin-yang energy makes it unlikely that a teacher is going to utilize breath effectively. I might for example inhale when my hands are moving up and exhale when they're moving down in opening form.
The entire central premise of Tai Chi and other soft martial arts is that hardness cannot be overcome with more hardness, yang is less effective at combating yang than yin is. I would yield to an opponent's strike to pull them off balance and deflect the strike past me rather than blocking the strike outright. This understanding is crucial to grasping the martial applications of moves.
Ask them about the martial applications of moves.
Tai Chi is many things but it is first and foremost a form of martial art. It is arguably the softest martial art and it is not very often used for fighting on its own anymore but it will improve your skills in other martial arts. Nick Osipczack is an example of an MMA fighter that uses his knowledge of Tai Chi to help him win many of his fights. You can clearly see how his Tai Chi training and the meditative conditioning helps him stay calm and grounded during fights. He is extremely difficult to take down because of his balance, he sticks to his opponent which helps him anticipate his next move and he uses the principle of liu to deflect the blows and kicks past him so very few land. He uses softness to overcome hardness, flexibility to overcome rigidity and he stays centered and calm no matter what is happening around him. Tai Chi is how the warrior trains the mind for battle.
Yang Lu Chan, the founder of the Yang Style Tai Chi was hired as a martial arts instructor for the Imperial Guards of the Qing dynasty in China during the 19th Century. These guards were responsible for defending the Forbidden City, the Emperor and the imperial family. Yang Lu Chan was famous for winning most of his fights without seriously injuring his opponents.
If you are just doing the moves without an understanding of how they could be applied in a fight then that
makes for a pretty empty form. Understanding which part of the arm or hand we are striking with in Box Both Ears or Ward Off for example helps you do the move correctly. If you are mainly interested in the energetic or health aspects of Tai Chi then understanding the martial applications is still helpful as it will help you feel the energy exchange and understand the correct body posture that avoids injury and keeps you in a strong position at all times.
Ask the teacher if they give alternatives to difficult moves or if they are able to adapt moves to particular ailments and problems.
If a teacher tells you that you have to do something exactly like they are doing it they are not a very good teacher. Every single body is different and if I teach you a form for three years and by the end of those three years your form looks exactly like mine then I have failed you as a teacher. My hip width is not the same as your hip width. My perfect balance is going to differ from yours. How deep I sink to do particular moves is going to be determined by my leg strength, flexibility and knee health for example. If I have any old injuries that is going to affect my range of motion and how I do moves. Even the bone shape of our hip joints determine how wide we can spread our legs and this is not something you can change (which is also why not everyone can do the splits). Any past experience I might have with things like dancing yoga or other martial arts is going to influence my style of Tai Chi. As long as your alignment is correct and you are not making major mistakes you should adapt every form to your needs and abilities.
Ask them to break moves down and ask them to explain things in more detail.
This is especially useful if the teacher offers a free trial lesson. I find that a lot of teachers do not break moves down they just teach choreography. They can't answer questions like for example, "Which part of the heel is touching the ground?" Or "When do I turn my hips?"
They just expect you to learn through rote repetition without any deeper understanding of what you are doing. This is not only an ineffective way to learn that can keep you practicing for decades without any degree of mastery, but it could also lead to injuries. Many teachers can't even break a move down into footwork and handwork and teach the two parts separately. If this is the case that's a pretty good indication that that is how they learned Tai Chi and that they do not have a deeper understanding of the mechanics and fundamentals behind the move. I recommend searching for a better teacher if improving posture and body alignment is important to you.
Ask them if they teach drills.
It is the mark of a good martial arts teacher of any kind that they use drills in their teaching. Whether they incorporate them into their warm up or do them outright as drills or just repeat small sections over and over until it is right, if they are not teaching drills their students likely will not perfect moves. As my Muay Tai teacher puts it, "Drillers make killers." Even if we're not trying to kill anybody with Tai Chi we are trying to be killer Tai Chi players. An example of a drill would be Tai Chi walking, practicing standing on one leg, silk reeling, weight shifting, standing meditations, etc.
Can you trace your lineage or the lineage of your teachers?
This one I personally don't think is that important but then I have a bias in that direction as most of my teachers, while extremely competent were very obscure. Some didn't even speak English and so even if they did tell me their lineage I wouldn't have any idea what it was. Some people consider lineage to be very important and certainly if you are pursuing Tai Chi with the intent of teaching it it is important to know the lineage of the teacher you are learning from. I have moved several times in my life to multiple countries continents and cities and I've learned from a variety of teachers but I can tell you the lineage of the most important or most influential ones. I can tell you which style any particular adaptation I use in my teaching is from and I can also give you alternatives as well as the officially sanctioned version of the two oldest styles.
Personally I think that true Tai Chi Chuan is a rich, multi-layered form of moving meditation that will keep you engaged and in awe for decades. There is so much to learn and marvel at that I think it is worth seeking out a really good teacher. Ultimately though, what you are hoping to get from Tai Chi is going to determine what kind of teacher you want. If your only goal is to move your body then it doesn't matter much whether you take a Tai Chi Fitness class from your gym or study for many years under a well qualified teacher that knows the art of Tai Chi Chuan. I hope that after reading this you have a little spark of the passion that I have for the skill, the art, and the discipline that is true Tai Chi Chuan.