10 Things to Expect and Know for Your First Tai Chi Class

Chinese practice Tai Chi in Yangzhou
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If you have been toying with the idea of joining a local Tai Chi class, you might wonder what to expect in your first class. Doing anything for the first time can be a daunting experience – knowing what to expect can make all the difference.

Unlike other exercise classes, Tai Chi is a slow, gentle, and somewhat therapeutic form of exercise, which means that your first class might be a little (make that a lot) different from what you are used to (or what you expect).

Some Tai Chi newbies find great value in watching one or two classes before they participate in one. Doing this can help you to get a better understanding of the flow of Tai Chi and how the martial art form focuses on relaxing body and mind while focusing on gentle, precise movements. By observing a class, you can also see how to position your body and the various stances involved, before you are thrown into it and expected to keep up.

Nevertheless, there will come a time when you need to participate in your very first Tai Chi class, and having a basic understanding of what to expect can be the difference between feeling overwhelmed and having the time of your life.

While all Tai Chi classes may vary according to location, instructor, and the version of Tai Chi being practiced, most classes have a similar layout. What should you expect?

These are 10 things to expect and know for your first Tai Chi class:

1. A Quiet and Meditative Environment.

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Most exercise groups and classes are arranged at a busy gym or fitness center, which welcome participants with upbeat, booming music. Tai Chi is very different. It is a meditative form of exercise, and so requires a calm and quiet environment. Most classes are held outdoors in nature, but due to location, this is not always possible. As such, some classes must be held indoors. Even so, there is no loud music involved in a Tai Chi class.

The class environment is often silent. During the class, participants are also respectfully and reflectively quiet and focused.

2. A Mixed Group of People – Various Age Groups and Fitness Levels.

When it comes to Tai Chi, there is no age restriction for classes. Classes can include people ranging from young children to the elderly, which is very unlike regular fitness classes which are arranged according to fitness levels.

Thai Chi classes often include beginners as well as advanced participants. This means that when you start, you might feel a little overwhelmed when some group members seem to know exactly what they are doing. Do not worry – with a bit of practice, you will find your place in the group. Pick a spot where you are most comfortable and focus on following the movements and poses demonstrated by the instructor.

Each member will be so focused on their own movements that there is no need to feel awkward or in the spotlight. You might even find other members quite useful in helping you perfect the moves, merely by observing them.

3. Introduction to the art of Tai Chi.

If you are attending a class for beginners, you can expect to be provided with an introduction to the art of Tai Chi. A brief explanation of what Tai Chi is about can be expected, but most instructors do not go into too much detail. It is expected that participants at least have a basic understanding of the art, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t ask questions if you want to expand your knowledge and understanding of the art form.

In your first class, you will receive a warm welcome and then introduced to a variety of activities. These include demonstrations and explanations on visualization, meditation techniques, body handling, repetitive movements, and how to potentially work with a partner to perform and even correct exercises. This part of the class is usually in place to help students feel welcome, comfortable, and ease before the exercise actually starts.

4. The Exercises Start With a Warm-up.

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Warming up is vital in any exercise class. It is important to pay attention to do the warm-up exercises carefully. These exercises prepare your muscles for the movements that are to follow. When you consider that Tai Chi is a full body workout, it makes sense that you need to prep for the session.

The warm-up generally includes gentle, easy motions. Some of the exercises to expect include shoulder circles, walking/pacing, turning head side-to-side, hand clenches, heel-to-toe rocking, and so on. During the warm-up phase of the class, students are encouraged to get into the right headspace by clearing their thoughts and trying to let go of their daily stresses. By doing this, you are preparing your mind for the focus and concentration that will soon be needed.

5. Breathing Exercises to Enhance the Meditative State of Mind.

Learning to breathe deeply and slowly is vitally important in Tai Chi. With a few minutes of learning to breathe correctly, you can relax both body and mind and get the body’s energy more focused. In most classes, this is done standing up, but some classes can be done sitting down.

6. Stretches (full body).

Just before exercises begin, there can be a short time of stretching. These are more intense than the warm-up exercises as they prepare each part of the body for exercise. Stretches are focused on the neck, shoulders, hips, spine, knees, and even the toes. These stretches are repeated several times on both sides of the body.

7. Instruction of Tai Chi forms/movements.

woman  doing qi  gong tai chi exercise
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The next phase is the real “meat” of the Tai Chi class. This is where you will learn the various Tai Chi forms and movements. In the beginning, you will learn short combinations of a group of movements. Expect to hear strange terms such as “part the horse’s mane” and “grasp the sparrow’s tail”, which are the names of some of the movements. These terms usually make it a bit easier to remember what movements are needed for each motion or posture.

There are various drills and combinations that you can be taught. Beginner classes start with the simplest forms and will progress over the weeks to follow.

8. Repetition of the movement forms with instructor-student assistance.

Once the class has been taught or demonstrated the movements and forms required in the set, they are repeated several times, slowly and gently. During this process, students who are struggling with form and movement can receive further instruction and assistance.

In Tai Chi, it is important to do each movement precisely. It can take some time to learn the movements, and you might feel disoriented or “turned around” during the first few classes. The trick is to stick with it. With practice, the movements will start to feel more natural.

9. Cool down and relaxation time.

It is essential to cool down after any form of exercise. A bit of time should be spent stretching and breathing at the end of the class. During this time, the instructor may speak of trying to apply Tai Chi techniques and movements in everyday life. Notice how connected you are to your surroundings and environment. Look for areas in life where Tai Chi movements fit into your day-to-day activities and movements.

Once the class is settled and relaxed, it is time to do a bit of talking and socializing to get to know your classmates.

10. Time to socialize and get to know your group members.

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For many, joining an exercise class is all about the social element. Tai Chi does not cater to chats and getting to know each other during the actual class, but most classes mingle for a brief period after the exercise is complete. This is the ideal time to get to know your classmates better and maybe even make some friends. You will be spending a few hours a week with these people, and it is nice to get to know each other.

You can also use this time to chat with the instructor about any difficulties you experienced or issues you might have faced during the class. The time to readjust to “real life” from a meditative place of mind so that you can tackle the challenges of the world once more, the moment you head back to your normal daily activities.

Last Word

Many people let the fear of the unknown stop them from joining a new fitness class. While Tai Chi might be foreign to you now, most people who start practicing it find that it becomes a huge part of their daily lives. If you have Tai Chi classes available in your neighborhood, book yourself an orientation class or jump right in – you will not regret it.