For all the different levels of skill, no one is superior. Competition is not finding out whether we are greater than our opponents, but through competition, we discover ourselves.         – Jet Li

Two fourth grade boys began to chop and kick at one another, each yelling their own form of, “Hiya!” Before either one of them lost a tooth or more of their dignity I sat the class down and used their actions as a discussion point.

We had been practicing Tai Chi and I had just demonstrated some of the poses that we would be going through that day, thus, their excitement. Tai Chi is a martial art that focuses on smooth movements connected fluidly from one pose to the next. It develops balance and muscular endurance, all while deepening control over your breath. Some use it as a form of meditation but our focus was mainly on the effects of increased oxygen to the blood stream resulting in improved physical output. I know, deep stuff.

Along with our academic focus on breathing, with Tai Chi, I always like to demonstrate some of the more practical applications. This keeps the more active students engaged and allows for a deeper purpose driven lesson. I demonstrated how a few of the starting movements were also defensive moves to deflect and shield from oncoming attacks. I also demonstrated how rotation and slight turns of the hips allowed for greater balance and stronger positioning against oncoming threats. But here’s where my pupils strayed.

In Tai Chi, and similar martial arts, we learn these movements not out of desire to strike but to defend. Aikido, Jiu Jitsu, and Keysi are all self-defense based martial arts.

The key take away from our conversation that I desired for my students was for them to master their own body and space. To practice Tai Chi was to practice controlling one’s self. Breathing, focus, and every other movement, even out to your finger tips, were all areas on which we could concentrate and control over time. This was the objective – to be masters of our own space. The self-defense came in when someone else decided to enter your space. If you were masters of your own space, wouldn’t it make sense to be masters of anything that entered your space, be it hockey stick, ball, or attacker’s fist.

I brought up Jet Li’s words before we continued with Tai Chi. I encouraged each student to attempt to own their space. Only then – the “then” being the thousands of hours of mindful practice it takes to master your space – would they be able to handle what enters their domain.

The second half of our class was one of the most focused sessions I’ve ever facilitated. They were driven, engaged, and set on mastering themselves. They understood both the need for intentional movements, while stretching themselves mentally and physically.

Isn’t that our goal as educators? To put together the types of objectives, activities, and assessments which allow students to go off on their own journey of mastery. And through such journeys, they will inevitably discover themselves.