How to teach a group with multiple levels of ability

Hazel Thompson, Master Trainer, Sydney, Australia


Firstly, no-one can successfully teach a long-term group with widely varying abilities, but it is possible to create an enjoyable experience for everyone.

It can be helpful to look at the aim of the group.

If this is attached to a physiotherapy clinic, is the aim to introduce people to tai chi, or to run a long- term class where people expect to start with no knowledge and build up to a good standard?

In either circumstance, most participants are aiming to study and learn at least one form, but often instructors say they have a problem when new participants with no prior tai chi knowledge join a group which has been established for some time.

Here the instructor needs look at their own commitments. Do they have the time and energy to run a long term and more advanced class, as well as an intermediate level class and a beginners’ class, which would be the ideal solution? It is very attractive to have larger numbers and an increased income, but especially with Covid 19 restrictions there may be a cap on numbers.

Zoom is very helpful. Without the limit of a physical class and social distancing you can safely supervise quite a few participants and give them basic moves to practice as you give them positive feedback.

When you do end up with a mixed ability group there is a necessity to encourage newer members to avail themselves of the study materials and online lessons so that they can improve their standard and master at least the basic six moves of Tai Chi for Arthritis in their own time, then join the intermediate class.

Be positive and let everyone know, even the accomplished participants, that it can be extremely helpful to go back to the basic moves and study them in detail. For the beginners they simply need to co-ordinate their hands and feet. Intermediates can work on the principles as they practice alongside the beginners. There is a mutual advantage here; beginners progress more quickly when they are mixed with more advanced practitioners. Advanced practitioners can experience a sense of achievement and pride as they see less abled members look to them for an example.  In effect you create a scaffold” of advanced participants to support your beginners. Whichever direction they are facing they have the security of seeing the moves performed for them to copy. 

Dr Lam’s TCA and warm-ups are the gold standard for all instructors, but it is also helpful to work on smaller elements of the form. The warm-up and cool down should always be included.  (I recommend the warm-ups be done seated in a mixed level group, so that everyone can see, and no one feels under increased pressure to maintain their balance.)

After the warm-ups, include some “easy” routines so that everyone leaves the class with something they can try at home, and a sense of relief and achievement that they were able to keep up.

These can be simple. Practice walking in a straight line very slowly, concentrating on weight transfer and posture. This is also an excellent time to discuss the advantages of a wider stance. Follow steps, by themselves, are a useful way to improve balance and leg strength. Above all, be encouraging and cheerful. Remember that what is easy for some may be incredibly difficult and challenging for others.

Teaching Tai Chi Compassionately

Remember that the hidden principle is Empathy. Put yourself in your participants’ shoes. Look around the class during the warm-ups. Try the Acid Test: Smile. Do the participants smile back? Are they relaxed and having fun? Are they anxious, self-conscious or nervous? If they are not having fun ask yourself why?  Are you too serious?  Remember – it is JUST tai chi, if you follow the Teaching Safely guidelines everyone can have a good time and hopefully learn something as well, but it is not rocket science. (Apologies to Dr Lam!)  At the end of the day if you are not enjoying the class then there is a good chance that no-one else is enjoying it either.

Do not focus on the participants’ medical conditions or injuries, but do remember that many people may have eyesight and hearing problems, or may feel very stressed by joining a group of strangers to try what might be, for them, an entirely new and mysterious form of exercise. If you see someone struggling don’t single them out but ask the whole group if everyone is comfortable or has any questions.

Never mention hearing problems but rather tell people that you have trouble speaking loudly, and (in a physical workshop) ask people to come forward if you are not loud enough.

If you feel that the group is not understanding your directions, then bear in mind the problems of the group – hearing, ability, injury, medical condition. Far better to tell everyone it is time to take a seat and continue than have someone stumble or feel exhausted. Do the movements seated, talk about dantien breathing and tell them how much you love doing your tai chi seated. Ask them to visualize that they have no injuries or aches and pains. Maybe they are 21 again and exercising in a beautiful mountain clearing in China, wearing silk pajamas.

(I did this one week, and the next week part way through the class 82 year-old Mary, on her walking frame, asked “aren’t we going to China?”)

Remember that there are no limits to imagination; given encouragement and guidance almost everyone can learn to forget their physical limitations and relax and let their qi flow.

There is a moment in every class when, after a few lessons, the participants can perform a few moves from memory. Suddenly everyone is facing in the same direction, at the same time. A sense of peace descends from the ceiling. That is the moment when a class becomes a group. Over 25 years I have witnessed that moment many times. It never fails to bring me to tears. I wish the same for you.

One final note: Dr Lam does have many qualified instructors who have learned TCA, TCA2 and STCA. And stopped. They feel that for their small and sometimes more elderly communities they do not need to progress any further and that TCA is extremely useful for managing a variety of conditions and needs.

Lao Tzu, circa 600 BC


“I have just three things to teach:




These three are your greatest treasures”