Shifu Chen Zhonghua often emphasizes how to learn Taijiquan. This web site has a great article called 6 Methods of Learning Tai Chi. (Read this if you have not already.) It expands and elaborates on Grandmaster Hong’s “Look, Listen, and Ask” practice method.
In motor control research, I found the neurological basis for this method of learning. There are neurological mechanisms called mirror neurons. The basic premise is when we see a person do something, mirror neurons fire off in our brain attempting to duplicate the pattern in our nervous system required to copy the movement. At first, it is an imperfect copy because it follows old neurological pathways. With repeated viewing of the action, our brains and nervous system do a really good job of creating new neurological pathways to accurately copy the movement.
A lifelong learning method
We see this in infants, children, and adults. Infant children often take an interest in their parents eating, they frequently watch very intently. Their attention is so keen that their mouths may involuntarily mimic the chewing action. Neurologists think that most physical actions and facial expressions are learned through the mirror neuron mechanism. This mechanism of learning is never lost during a lifetime.
Most of us have a layer of cultural baggage that makes this method of learning difficult. We have been taught that we need to “understand” things in the cognitive centers of our brains before we can do them. I have even heard Taijiquan called “the thinking man’s martial art”. It may be disconcerting to just watch and bypass the conscious thinking parts of our brain, but it is a better leaning strategy.
Which method is “better” depends on your goals. If you want to know and understand taijiquan, the better strategy would be to stimulate the cognitive centers by thinking about and analyzing the movements of Taijiquan. However, if you want to be able to do taijiquan, an appealing promise of the Practical Method, then you need to do those things which stimulate the mirror neurons in the motor learning centers of the brain.
“Look” and video recordings
Researchers found that our brains do not differentiate between actions witnessed in person or through video recordings. When being taught in-person, this is an important learning method. However, this is a really valuable learning method to use with video recordings. Because of the ability to slow down and repeat what we are seeing, this is where we need most to apply the “Look” aspect of learning.
What about “Listen?”
When we watch a video with the sound on, we watch what is being said. Part of our brain is distracted by what is being said or music playing or whatever. When we watch with the sound off, we watch what is being done. Both can valuable. The cognitive centers in our brains learn from what is being said, but the motor control centers in our brains learn best by watching what is being done and without verbal stimulation. You can watch a video to listen and get the gist of what is being said. Until we have established the needed neurological pathways, we are not ready to “listen” and think about what is being said. Especially avoid focusing on and analyzing the verbal explanations or repeatedly listening.
Restrain the temptation of physically follow along
When you watch a video, and especially in-person, only watch. Avoid trying to imitate the movements while you’re watching. We’ve all seen students learning in-person in the background of videos trying to mimic Shifu Chen movements as he demonstrates. I also ignorantly have done this myself. Usually, we fail to come even close to accurately mimicking the movement.
While the impulse to copy is good, it is counterproductive, especially in the early stage of learning something new. If you try to imitate movement while watching, you will engage old, established motor pathways and neural patterns, which usually perform the movement incorrectly. This can fool your brain into thinking that you are accurately copying what you have been shown. If we then repeat that movement over and over, we establish an incorrect neurological pathway that we must eventually breakdown and retrain, which is a longer process than establishing a new pathway from the start.
Establish a new neural pathway
To engage the correct neural pathways, after watching, picture the movement in your mind. Remember what your body felt like as you watched. Move slowly at first. Speed will come with repetition.
Also, avoid self-talk, verbal cues and analysis of the actions. These corrupt the neural copy of the movement you are creating in your brain. All of that can be done after you learn the movements.
Instead, just watch and give the rest of your brain a rest. Then, watch, re-watch, and re-re-watch and so on until you can picture the movement in your mind, and you can feel the movement in you without actually doing it. Then, try to do it. This will give you your best chance of building correct new neural pathways.
Testing what you have learned
Practice it a little bit, until you think you have it right. Then, video yourself doing the movement and compare it to the original. Or, you can do an appropriate two-man exercise that uses the action. Ideally, a few adjustments should help fine tune the correct neural pathway. If it just doesn’t work, go back to watching. You may literally be growing new nerves and neural connections, but often minor changes can only take a day or two. It can take time to build a precise neural pathway.
Repeat to strengthen the new neural pathways
Once you think you are successful in two-man drills, you need to strengthen the neural connections and pathway by repetition. Drills, circles, and push hands are all important, but also make sure you update every occurrence of that action in your form and all of your movements, which can number in the dozen, scores, or even hundreds.
This may sound like I am advocating waiting until you can do everything in taijiquan perfectly before doing lots of repetitions. But, the opposite is true. You need a foundation upon which to build your taijiquan without which you cannot add more sophisticated and detailed movements. Your body/mind loves efficiency, and taijiquan is supremely efficient. If you give the body/mind a choice between an old, familiar, but inefficient habit and a new more efficient habit and time to try out both ways, it will usually go with the more efficient method. This will gradually and sometimes drastically improve your taijiquan.
Now, you are ready to go back and “listen.”
Richard Johnson has a Masters in Exercise Science and doctoral coursework completed in Sports Biomechanics. He is a biomechanics consultant for athletes and teams seeking relief from biomechanically-induced problems or better performance, and individuals seeking relief from pain.