“You’re not what I expected.”

I got this comment in the park while I was doing my evening practice. Someone had come over to ask me some questions about Chi Kung. She remarked on the quality of my energy and asked me where I had learned these arts. I mentioned that I was a teacher . . . and then she made the comment.

Honestly, I wasn’t offended by her comment. It wasn’t the first time I’ve gotten this kind of response. Even when people are polite enough not to say it to my face, I’m pretty sure they’re thinking it.

Lots of people have preconceived notions about what a Chi Kung expert should look like, even those who don’t know what Chi Kung is! They’ve likely been conditioned by mainstream American culture, which has absorbed a vague awareness of Chinese martial and spiritual practices. But whatever the source of the conditioning, if people encounter an art that seems esoteric, involves choreographed movements, and has Chinese origins, then their expectations get triggered.

So what are these expectations?

Your Master Must Be Chinese

The biggest expectation I encounter in potential students is that a Chi Kung expert should be Chinese. After all, Chi Kung is a Chinese art, it’s been a part of Chinese culture for thousands of years, and there are more than a billion Chinese people alive today. Why shouldn’t experts of the art be Chinese?

This expectation reflects an ignorance of Chinese history. Elements of traditional Chinese culture have long been exported from China to other parts of Asia. What’s more, upheavals in China over the last two hundred years or so led many masters of traditional Chinese arts like Chi Kung to leave the country. As a result of all this movement, these arts gradually spread to students around the world, including non-Chinese students. These days, many excellent practitioners and teachers of Chi Kung are not in China and are not ethnically Chinese.

Old Is Never Old Enough

It’s a truism in the world of Taijiquan that the art takes a lifetime to master, and  people sometimes transfer that idea to Chi Kung. As a result, they expect a Chi Kung teacher to be middle-aged or older. For students who cling to the image of a wizened graybeard as their instructor, my baby face and lack of gray hairs will be a turnoff. I can hear the critics now: “Who does that kid think he is?”

The truth is it doesn’t have to take a lifetime to develop some mastery of Chi Kung. Chi Kung, like riding a bicycle, involves particular skills that one can get better at through practice. How quickly you master the art depends in part on how well you learn and how well you practice. If you don’t learn the fundamental skills of Chi Kung, or if you do but then don’t practice them much, mastery will remain out of reach. On the other hand, high-quality instruction combined with consistent practice could enable you to reach a basic level of mastery in about a decade.

What Chi Kung Experts Really Look Like

Chi Kung experts enjoy the benefits of their art, which include having good health and vitality, a positive attitude toward life, and a sharp mind. They can be of any ethnicity and gender and of almost any age (barring extreme youth, for practical reasons). You might not notice, at first glance, that these folks are Chi Kung experts—unless you catch them practicing. So next time you’re wandering around a city park, keep your eyes peeled. You might just find your very own local Chi Kung expert.