is a mirror a useful training tool for chen tai chi

November 22, 2016

Is a Mirror a Useful Training Tool for Chen style Tai Chi


If you ask any high level practitioner of Chen Tai Chi from the previous generations, they will most probably tell you never to use a mirror as a training tool for your Tai Chi progression. I absolutely disagree with this position, and here is why:


Traditionally, Tai Chi (Taijiquan) was taught almost entirely by 'feeling'. The teacher would correct the student, and the student would feel the postural correction, and then try to replicate that feeling in their own training. None of the old masters used mirrors as an aid to their training. And my guess is that, when they say not to use a mirror as a Tai Chi aid, the concern is that it could hinder development by causing the student to focus too much on seeing and not enough on feeling. 

I see two major problems with this for the modern student:

1. Contact time with the teacher is usually much less than historically, when the student would often live with the master, or at the very least have a large amount of one-to-one time with them. Very few Tai Chi students in modern times have this luxury, most of us see out teacher once per week, once per month, or even less. And most of the contact time is not one-to-one, but in a class format. This means that if a student needs to get a correction a number of times before they can 'feel' it and replicate it themselves, it could take months or years rather than days or weeks to integrate a correction into their understanding. 


2. Most modern people are so out of touch with their body, that their sensitivity to feeling is very limited. We live a much more mental life than the people who were learning Tai Chi in rural China in the last century or even before. Most of us have much less sensitivity to the subtle feelings in our bodies. This means the above problem is exacerbated, because to understand a Tai Chi correction based entirely on feeling is going to be more difficult for us. 

What a mirror offers is something of an 'objective observer' in that it doesn't lie to you. You may feel like your shoulders and hips are level, but when you see yourself in the mirror, you will quickly realise otherwise. So this can enable a Tai Chi practitioner to give themselves some corrections based solely on observing their posture in the mirror.


In my experience, the mirror can actually help develop sensitivity to feeling as well. Because as I look and see that, for example, my shoulder is riding up at a particular point in the silk reeling cycle, I then know that my shoulder is tensing at this point, which I had not been able to feel. I now know that I need to put my attention into my shoulder at that moment, and  focus on keeping my shoulder relaxed, with the mirror telling me if I am succeeding. Thus the mirror can guide me to heighten me awareness of feeling, and take a step forward in my understanding and progression in Tai Chi.

Having said that, ultimately we must all develop the sensitivity to feeling to get to higher levels of skill, so the mirror is only a useful tool to a certain level. Beyond that the postural adjustments are so subtle, that they are barely visible in the mirror, so its usefulness is diminished. 


Of course I am not suggesting that all training should be done in front of a mirror, but I certainly think it's very useful to have a look at one's own Tai Chi silk reeling patterns or Tai Chi postures from time to time. And I can state absolutely categorically that for the first few years of my training, the mirror was absolutely fundamental to my development of understanding of silk reeling, and improved postures in Tai Chi.


Boundless Sky Tai Chi offers lessons in authentic Chen style Tai Chi in the Greenwich area of south London. Tai Chi classes that are suitable for all levels fo experience from beginner to advanced available in Lewisham and Greenwich.

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