The Mariposa Tai Chi Method.

Developed for teachers and students.

- by Ian Sinclair

The Mariposa Tai Chi Method is an attempt to contribute something of value to the tai chi community. I have benefitted greatly from generations of generous teachers, and I feel obligated to pass on what little skill and knowledge I have with the same enthusiasm shown by my teachers.

The Mariposa Tai Chi Method is a work in progress, and I will constantly be attempting to improve upon it. I do so with the generous input from my teachers, and the tai chi community at large.

It is not easy to teach tai chi for a living. There are challenges inherent in the structure of the art itself. Tai chi was developed in rural China between the late Ming Dynasty and late Qing Dynasty. It was taught to family members in rural villages and then to royalty and elite military in the Imperial palace. It began as a secret martial art, became a famous martial art, and then became famous as a therapeutic exercise recognized as especially beneficial for senior citizens.

The benefits of tai chi are vast and profound. But of all those people who are exposed to the art these days, precious few will have any idea about the real nature of the art. Even fewer will have the opportunity to benefit in the many ways possible.

After more than 3 decades teaching tai chi, I have decided that my greatest contribution will not be to develop a new style. Instead, I have set myself the task of developing a modern curriculum and pedagogy that better suits the limitless capacity of the art and the potential of the wide demographic to which it should appeal.

Tai chi is not nearly as popular as it could be. Part of the reason for this, as I see it, is the well-meaning but ineffective strategies that have been applied to make it more appealing to the masses. Over the past 100 years there have been committees, governments, and associations who have applied the resources of bureaucracy, propaganda, sport science, education theory, and accounting to create various routines and structures for the promoting of the art of tai chi.

I believe that one of the main reasons for what I see as a failure to promote the art effectively is the emphasis (in some quarters) on the development of style. Any coordinated effort to promote tai chi has focused on the promotion of one style or another. Devotion to style has, in many cases, become more important than devotion to the actual lineage of instructors. Economies, infrastructure and bureaucracies have been formed around the major styles. Monuments have been built, and rivalries have become entrenched. Alternate histories vie for acceptance, and representatives of each style travel the globe (teaching brilliantly, I must add) to devotees of their particular school.

Before I go on, I must insist that I see no fault on the part of the lineage holders, or the masters of each style. I attend their seminars and classes whenever possible, and I am always impressed by the eagerness of the great masters to share their knowledge openly with students whom they may only meet once. I also have no issue with the efforts to promote the art (whatever the style) or to pay homage to the ancestors who created it.

The problem is that people mistake the style for the art. The devotees, whether new followers or back room promoters, become dogmatic about the devotion to a particular style, routine, history, or routine. They are like students of Van Gogh who insist on painting by numbers.

Imagine if all music teachers specialized in the teaching of a particular song or songs. Imagine that they required those songs to be played in the same style, with the same instruments, and with the same dynamics and voicing. Can you imagine what the state of music would be like, as an art form, under such conditions?

The result of this attachment to style is a pedagogy and curriculum that fails to adapt to changing realities. The attachment to style means the failure to recognize that what works in rural China might not work in modern Toronto, or rural Wisconsin. Such attachment fails to appreciate the creativity, goals, requirements, or potential of each student.

Of course, we should not abandon routines any more than musicians should abandon musical compositions.

Almost every tai chi class in existence is based on the practice of a standard routine, of which there are several. The problem is not the existence of routines. The problem is that students and teachers are failing to understand why the routines exist.

Some purposes of tai chi routines:
  • an expression of an art
  • an encyclopedia of movement and structure
  • an encyclopedia of technique, method, and universal principles
  • a context within which the student explores the art
  • a conditioning exercise which reprograms dna, the mind, and the body to be efficient, powerful, balanced, natural, and unattached.

In my years of teaching, I have identified certain problems when teaching various routines such as: traditional routines, international standard routines, and the modern simplified routines. This is why I have developed the foundation routines with the following attributes.


The Mariposa Method Foundation Routines are symmetrical, with each movement or series of movements performed sequentially on both sides.

Traditional routines are not symmetrical. The typical tai chi routine is right handed. The traditional Yang style long form, for instance, contains movements which are perform as many as 13 times on the right but never performed on the left. To a traditional martial artist there is no more need to do left-handed tai chi than there is for a right-handed writer to write left-handed, or a right-handed boxer to box southpaw. But in a world where new students seldom have basic martial arts training such as the symmetrical calisthenic exercises taught in wushu classes, this is a problem. It also creates problems for people for whom tai chi is their primary source of exercise.

Small space

The Mariposa Method Foundation Routines are designed to remain mostly in a small area. There are, however, some sequences which travel for a few steps, in order to preserve necessary footwork elements.

Traditional routines can require a lot of space. The typical tai chi routine, even the simplified routines such as the 24 form, require considerable space. It is said that the experienced student can perform the long routine in an area big enough that an ox can lay down in it. But for beginners, the routines range for several steps in on direction before moving back in the other. This means that students will often run out of room and need to jockey for position in order to continue. It also means that, even when a group performs a routine in unison, a student with short legs is at risk of being overrun by adjacent students with long legs.

No collisions

The Mariposa Method Foundation Routines are designed in sections which, when practised repeatedly, keep the student in roughly the same spot on the floor. Students can practise different elements while remaining side-by-side, with minimal risk of collisions.
The combination of the large range and asymmetry of other tai chi routines means that groups cannot practise individually in the same room without investing in more real estate. They will constantly be colliding with other students who are practising a different parts of the same routine.

Consistent orientation

The Mariposa Method Foundation Routines are designed so that the primary orientation is always to the front of the class. Most steps to the left are made with the left foot, and most steps to the right are made with the right foot. With few exceptions, the student will not need to look over his or her shoulder to see the teacher.

Traditional routines have widely Varied Orientations of Postures
Traditional and modern routines move in all directions of the compass. They may start facing north, but then turn east, then west, then north-east, then southwest, then turn clockwise till facing southeast. This means that students will spend a great deal of time looking over their shoulders in order to see what the teacher is doing. Even normal stepping patterns require the students to alternately face toward the teacher then away. A perfect example is the sequence called weaving the shuttles. It starts with single whip facing southwest, turns clockwise to step northeast (with the student looking over the left shoulder to see the teacher), turns clockwise to step northwest (with the student looking over the right shoulder to see the teacher), turns southwest (with the student looking over the right shoulder to see the teacher), and then turns clockwise to the southeast (with the student looking over the left shoulder to see the teacher). This sequence functions partially as a weight-loss program for the teacher who keeps running around the room to find positions where he or she can be seen by most students.

Not Simplified

The Mariposa Method Foundation Routines are NOT simplified. In fact, they contain elements which have become rare, even in so-called traditional routines.

With the many attempts to create new routines that can be easily taught to the masses, the trend over the past 100 years has been to simplify the forms. This has resulted in routines that do not interest the teachers or the serious students. Terms like "Hospital tai chi" and "Beijing Style", and "Beginner forms" are often used. Even the traditional long routines have been progressively watered down in order to make them easier to teach to large groups of students in short periods of time. While many of these routines have partially succeeded in making tai chi available to more people, there are occasions where they have resulted in creating a sort of tai chi ghetto for students who will never be expected to do what is required to achieve greatness, or even competence.

All around the world there are people who will take a series of 8 beginner tai chi lessons from a novice instructor and will think that they have been exposed to the dept and breadth of the art. Beginners do not have the opportunities to view elite students or to hear about the deeper aspects of the art.

Linear Progression

The Mariposa Method Foundation Routines are taught by sections. In each section there are presented, in context, certain key principles that are part of the essential curriculum. This way, students who learn the whole routine will be exposed to all of the essential principles. Also since the program is taught as a phased curriculum, it doesn't matter when the student joins the class. Whether at the beginning, the middle, or the end, any persistent student should be exposed to the complete routine in time.

Traditional teaching methods tend to be sporadic. In 35 years of teaching, I have often been surprised by what my students don't know. They will ask a question that makes me wonder how they could have trained with me for so long and not have known the answer to it.
I witnessed the same thing happen to my own teacher, when one of his Tu-Di (adopted disciples) asked a question that literally stopped our teacher in his tracks. "How could you not know that?!" He exclaimed. "How many years have you been my student?" (It was more than 15 years).

The reality is that even if a student has perfect attendance, he or she will not hear everything that the teacher has to say. Teachers often underestimate the extent of the knowledge they carry, and might expect some knowledge to be far more universal than it really is.

If a teacher does not have everything established as part of the common curriculum, then several details will certainly be lost through the cracks, and students, even those who pay attention all the time, will miss important information.

No Secrets

There is a myth that great teachers keep secrets from their students. I have found that the great teachers do not keep secrets from the students. If knowledge fails to be transmitted, it is not typically because the teacher does not want the student to learn. Knowledge fills the great teachers to overflowing and they are constantly looking for the right places to put it. The problem is the students. Teachers are continually learning. So the students of great teachers will seldom learn half of what the teacher knows. This is not the fault of the teacher. It is the sincere hope of most teachers that the students will surpass them. This is the same with any art or science. We hope that each successive generation will improve on what we know.

Usually, the only teachers who actually keep secrets are the teachers who have nothing to hide. They pretend to have secret knowledge in order to hide the fact that they have nothing of great depth. However, some teachers pretend to keep secrets as part of their teaching method. Like the dragon scroll in Kung Fu Panda.

It still depends on regular practice.

Students with great potential are often eager to ask questions and to demonstrate eagerness. This can get in the way. Students seldom understand enough to ask the right questions. They certainly don't know how to ask the right questions at the right time. This leads to some errors in communication.

Consider this actually exchange between a student and a teacher.

Student: "Shirfu, should my rear foot be at a 35º angle or a 40º angle?"
Teacher: "It doesn't matter. I think you can do it whatever way you want. Keep up the good work."

What actually happened here? Let us run the dialogue through the English-to-English translation software.

Student: "Shirfu, should my rear foot be at a 35º angle or a 40º angle?"
Translation: "Hey, Teacher! Look at me! I know this routine so well that I need to ask about minutia! "

Teacher: "It doesn't matter. I think you can do it whatever way you want."
Translation: "I'm sorry that you are so bored already. I suppose you don't need me to tell you that your head should be higher than your hips. As for the angle of your foot, you don't practise enough for it to make any difference."

Students will be amazed at he lengths to which a teacher will go in order to pass on the art that they love. If a student is ready, the teacher will not only appear. He or she will almost become a nuisance. But the best teachers knows better than to pour tea into a full cup, to offer pearls to pigs, or to try teaching even the most deserving student who is not yet ready.

‘The Mariposa Method Foundation Method was created by, and improving it is my ongoing quest. I accept all the blame for any flaws in the system.

Students must assume responsibility far taking what they can from it, and for adjusting it to suit their needs. I look forward to seeing what other teachers do with this concept. I have spent a decade on the curriculum so far, and I will continue to make changes and revisions. Students or teachers who would like to be certified to teach this system are welcome to contact me. I am also interested to see if this work inspires similar efforts.

I continue my study of Yang Style, Chen Style, Wu Style, Sun Style, Wu/Hao Style, Xingyiquan, Baguazhang, Wujiquan, and other internal and “external” martial arts.’

- Ian Sinclair