A Book Review: The Complete Tai Chi Tutor: A structured course to achieve professional expertise by Dan Docherty

I’d realised a little while ago that I haven’t written anything for my blog for a long time. Then more time passed and that little while became one with the long time, until now, in fact, it’s been over a year (I remember thinking I’d aim for about once a month). The Scottish poet, Robbie Burns, once wrote something about best laid plans aft gang aglee and I think that fairly sums it up, but in fairness to myself, I have been quite busy.

2015 was busy; I was volunteering at two hospitals and achieving exam success in an Open University Human Biology course. September of that year saw me starting a Physiotherapy degree – hard work is often rewarded with more hard work – and a physiotherapy degree is lots of hard work so 2016 was also busy (it has also been very exciting and full of discoveries).

Having completed my first year, I found myself in the strange position of not having to catch up with assignments or revision of an evening and thought I’d relive an experience I used to enjoy, namely, reading a book of my own choosing for pleasure. So, what book did I choose to read? Assuming you’ve read the title of this post, you’ll appreciate this is a rhetorical question and that’s right – how did you guess? – I read The Complete Tai Chi Tutor by Dan Docherty.

Let me be up front from the start. This book reflects some of the thoughts and experiences of Dan Docherty. I know Dan. I like Dan. I am a student of Dan’s so, perhaps unsurprisingly, I liked his book. I liked it a lot. For those acquainted with his previous writing it includes many familiar themes: the history of Tai Chi Chuan, the theory and practice of the art, the physiological benefits, the literary and cultural influences, an investigation of the Tai Chi classics, but there is also much that is new.

A number of elements combine to make this a thoroughly enjoyable read. Firstly, this is Dan’s most accomplished book in terms of his writing style; the anecdotes are humorous and phrasing well crafted. The use of stories both breathes life into the theory and entertains. Secondly, the understanding and explanations are deep and clear. Dan’s accumulated knowledge is, in part, distilled here. He explores the known, partly known and unknown aspects of the art and is able to discuss all aspects, whether martial, meditative, philosophical or historical, clearly, often commenting with personal experience.

This is looking at the world of Tai Chi through a lens and I imagine it could be a challenging read for those with preconceived ideas, but for anyone seriously enquiring into the art, there is much to find here. The introduction states it is intended for those who wish to improve their skill in Tai Chi as well as their knowledge of its history and theory and speaking as a student of Dan’s, whose views tend to be in accord with his, there is still much in the content to challenge me. Questions are raised. For example, am I as dedicated in my practice as Mr Wong? The ideas raised are salient for anyone wishing to improve.

The new material will presumably vary in interest from reader to reader as, of course, what is new to one person may be existing knowledge to another. Included are pushing hands exercises, training techniques, martial applications, the philosophical and cultural context and influences around the origins of Tai Chi, along with a thoughtful reflection on the development of the art and the influences of various styles. The exploration of the Tai Chi classics in relation to other significant texts and philosophies particularly engaged me and I paused on more than one occasion to consider an apposite quote and the rather fine balance between moral philosophy and martial physicality.

As a student physiotherapist, I have previously considered the parallels between Tai Chi Chuan and physiotherapy. The sections covering the tradition of Nei Ye and the physiological effects were of particular interest. Anecdotally, the effects on insomnia, Parkinson’s and other conditions are considered. Internationally, Tai Chi is already accepted as beneficial in falls prevention and there is an increasing body of research exploring other effects although it is worth noting that if I was not a practitioner, already familiar with many of the aspects being discussed, I may have found the references to unexplained, ‘inside the door’, training methods frustrating. However, the overview that is given is enough to reveal Tai Chi Chuan to be more than the form alone.

Tai Chi is a complex system, born of an equally complex culture and this book successfully presents the socio-cultural climate and environment out of which Tai Chi Chuan, as we know it, emerged. For many Tai Chi practitioners and teachers, there will be new and interesting training methods to explore. For everyone, there are theories on the development of the art, reminders of important concepts and challenges.

I’m doing twenty minutes a day running thunder hand a day, and I would recommend this book.

Ageing Like a Good Whiskey?

Think and enquire where does the final purpose lie? It lies in seeking longevity and keeping a youthful appearance.

                                                                                                                                                Song of the Thirteen Tactics


Up to 30% of our muscle fibres may disappear between the ages of 30 and 80. Once lost, these cells cannot be replaced. With the loss of muscle fibres comes a diminution of strength… these changes are not inevitable or irreversible; muscle performance can be improved through exercise at any age and this can compensate for loss of muscle fibres that has already been sustained.

                                                                                                Open University SK277 Human Biology Book 2


The second quote caught my attention while I was studying recently and reminded me of the statement from the Song of the Thirteen Tactics. The emphasis on the need for regular (ideally daily) exercise shocked me a little. I guess we’re all familiar with the effects of aging, but the statement that muscle fibres, once lost, can never be replaced was new knowledge to me. Never? What? Never-ever?

It may be because I’m turning forty soon, but I don’t like that fact. We should age like whiskey or wine, gaining depth, complexity and flavours. Not like eggs. That annoys me (probably because I’m getting grumpier as I get older) but things aren’t completely bleak. There is some comfort in the fact that we can increase the strength of remaining muscle fibres and that exercise, any kind of regular exercise, helps. As the classic claims, longevity is the final purpose of Tai Chi* and with regular exercise, we won’t even lose these muscle fibres! Good.

Talking to friends who have practiced Tai Chi for a number of years and are more – how to say this? – well, ahem, experienced, they feel stronger, fitter and healthier than their non-Tai Chi practicing friends. They are also able to continue training the softer aspects of the art and enjoying the benefits of exercise when the knees, joints and bodies of their otherwise engaged peers are, to be blunt, worn out. Tennis elbow or joggers knee are relatively common expressions suggesting how common these ailments are for those who practice these sports, but while I’ve heard of Tai Chi balls, they’re nothing to do with a health complaint.

So while I may be busier than the proverbial bee, I have new impetus to find time for practice. It is very encouraging to think that we can retain health through appropriate exercise.


* To be honest, I take the quote with a pinch of salt. This is the classic I am least comfortable with. My teacher, Dan, describes it as the ‘least substantial’ of the classics and I tend to agree. However, while I might find greater elucidation of concepts in other classics, longevity is certainly one of the central aims of Tai Chi and fits into a whole tradition of Taoist exercises and practices. I think that the ‘final purpose’ is open to interpretation by individuals (and personally I like that about Tai Chi). Taoism may be the study of the ‘way’, but whoever said there is only one way?


I think it was Iain Dowie who first used the word: bouncebackability. And a new word was created – what is referred to as a neologism. With the support of ‘Soccer AM’, it even entered the dictionary I believe. Bouncebackability: (especially in sport) the ability to recover from a setback.

So how is this relevant to Tai Chi? Well, I could quote the classics – The jin is broken, but the yi is unbroken – from ‘The Fighter’s Song’. Therefore we could consider this from the perspective of ‘intent’, but I’m going to leave that till another time. For now, I’ll make it more personal.

A few weeks or so ago I was on a trampoline. Silly perhaps and, don’t get me wrong, I’m not good at it – yet. I’m not a veteran or anything; in fact, I’ve not been learning that long – it’s a bit of fun, possibly part of a mid-life crisis, but good fun nevertheless. Except a couple of weeks ago it wasn’t much fun. I was on the trampoline with another person. In case you don’t know, it’s never wise to have two people on a trampoline, and so it turned out. Without going into details, I ended up bouncing on my head. My weight came down – the other person’s weight came up with the bounce of the trampoline bed and… Crack! Bent my neck right over. Ouch!

For the briefest fraction of a second, I wondered if I’d still be able to move my legs – I could, but something was definitely not right. Immediately my neck was stiffening; muscles tensing all across the shoulders and spasming down the back.

I moved very carefully the rest of that week, like someone doing a bad robot impression and any kind of neck movement hurt. It’s the closest I’ve come to whiplash – I’m sure many personal injury lawyers encourage people with far less damage from car accidents to apply for whiplash compensation. I decided the best way to deal with this was exercise (Tai Chi exercises to be specific), maintaining movement, relaxing muscles and correcting posture. So this is what I did: exercise. After one week, I still had restricted movement; after two, I was almost back to normal; and after three, there was only the occasional twinge.

I believe this injury might have dragged on and on, and I apportion my swift recovery to Tai Chi. Now, if you look, there are many claims, by many schools of Tai Chi about physical, mental and spiritual benefits, many justified, some a little far-fetched and some absolute… er… balderdash – but until you experience these benefits for yourself, they are difficult to appreciate. Medical studies prove the benefits of Tai Chi through numbers and statistics, but personal experiences are less quantifiable. I noticed my brother’s experience following a car crash in an earlier blog and, similarly, my recovery was relatively swift and now seems complete. Is that bouncebackability? I think so.

Completely Mental?

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. One of my favourite quotes from the bard (from Hamlet) and there has never been a truer word spoken. If you think something it is good, then to you it is. Likewise, if you think something is bad then so it is. It’s all in the mind, as the idiom goes and the mind is a powerful thing, holding sway over our bodies, our perceptions of reality, our emotions, our desires, our successes and failures.

I’m reading a book, ‘Living Dangerously,’ at the moment, in which the author relates meeting six N.C.O.s in the Malayan jungle during World War 2 who had been cut off. To quote, “A month later they were all dead. Yet there was nothing wrong with them. They were just not able to believe that they could live in the jungle, on rice and tapioca like the Chinese, among a thousand known and imagined horrors. And so they died.”

The right mental approach will bring success; the wrong – failure, on possibly a massive scale. So how does this relate to Tai Chi Chuan? What is the correct mental approach for students of the art? I have been referring to the classics for elucidation and was rather taken with a section from the ‘Interpretation of the Practice of the Thirteen Tactics.’

The body and the Yi (intent) are entirely

concentrated of the Jingshen (vigour),

Not on the Qi,

If on the Qi,

Then there is stagnation.

Now, this stumped me for a while and left me metaphorically scratching my head. There’s the issue of translation – Dan’s book* (from which the translation is taken) is excellent in giving non-Chinese speakers an insight into the characters, but the translation of meaning and the cultural context is still alien to me and, therefore, I have limited confidence in proposing an interpretation. (But then again, aren’t all texts open to interpretation? Consider the number of supposedly learned, religious men who espouse completely alternative readings of the same holy book.)

So, what I took from these lines was that a certain mental attitude or focus was being suggested; it seemed to be saying that the body and intent must concentrate on the vigour – I considered the translation of ‘vigour’ to be something like ‘aggression’ but not going so far – rather than the Qi.

Ok, that’s all very well, we should concentrate on ‘vigour’ not ‘qi’ but what does Qi mean here? I don’t much like the term Qi. It’s a damned vague term in martial arts that seems to mean almost anything. In this instance, I consider that Qi is referring to ‘energy’ being transferred between the self and opponent (whether in pushing hands or applications) and is part of what is ‘listened’ for (in Tai Chi terms) by making and maintaining contact with the opponent.

If that is right, (if!) then we should not focus upon the Qi; our minds, our intent should be on ‘vigour.’ Later lines, the final lines of this classic, explain:

The Qi is like the wheel of a chariot;

The waist is the axle.

My explanation of the explanation: If we focus on the wheel, we’re a bit like a cat watching a washing machine on spin cycle – no intent, going nowhere and getting dizzy doing it. Instead, we should be driving the chariot where we want to go –over our opponent, to victory.


*Tai Chi Chuan: Decoding the Classics for the Modern Martial Artist by Dan Docherty (available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Tai-Chi-Chuan-Decoding-Classics/dp/1847970842)


Apparently, when Alex Ferguson managed Manchester United the word he used most often during half time talks was focus – so I was once told anyway. I don’t know if it’s entirely true, but it sounds likely. For any competitor, whether in football, weight lifting, athletics, chess or martial arts that mental strength, that ability to focus is vital.
As is a strong body. And how do we achieve a strong mind and strong body? Training. Hard hours of training. Or minutes, depending on your lifestyle and level.
Now, my own lifestyle is not always conducive to training as hard as I would like. Having three children and various duties that I have to complete means that I’m constantly short of time so I have to pick and choose the training methods that I think will yield the best results. This is what led me one afternoon to consider how long it had been since conditioning my fists. I remembered that I used to do handstands on my knuckles as a way of strengthening the bones and wondered if I still could. Not wanting to put too much pressure on my delicate digits, I dropped the timer right down to one minute and took my shoes off to do a handstand in the hall.
To give some context, my youngest child was in the house and entertaining himself playing in the dining room – next to where I was doing my handstand. Let’s call him Tertius as he’s my third and to give more context context he’s just turned three.
So I was holding the handstand, feeling the pressure on my knuckles, but fairly comfortable when Tertius notices me upside down. “What are you doing?” he asks.
“A handstand on my knuckles,” I answered tersely, maintaining my focus. He wandered over. My t-shirt had fallen down to show my tummy and he stood quite close and pulled the t-shirt down to reveal more of me. Then the little blighter started tweaking my nipples, laughing and crying out, “Knuckles!”
I learnt two things that day. One: my son does not know the difference between knuckles and nipples. Two: even a one minute handstand requires mental focus.