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.