5 stages of form
Whole-body movement

classes     taijiquan     baguazhang     self defence     qigong     about us     reviews     a-z

5 stages of form

There are 5 stages to studying any form:

  1. The pattern

  2. Whole-body movement

  3. Martial applications (7 per movement)

  4. Shen (spirit/martial intent)

  5. Natural-feeling body use

Form changes

The 5 stages will cause the form sequence to improve in subtle but striking ways.
Initially a student begins with a crude pattern; an outline.
This much evolve in order for the form to become martially viable.

Every pattern of movement has its nature, meaning and purpose, and must be researched and studied before it can be really understood.

(Yang Jwing-Ming)

Stage 1 - The pattern

Stage 1 is the pattern, outline, the sequence of movements.
This stage of learning is often called 'the square form' because it is crude and largely inaccurate.
The form is practiced slowly.


It is necessary to have the form regularly corrected, so that a process of on-going refinement and improvement takes place.
Accurate positioning, attention to detail and a growing awareness of nuances is vital.
Once the form pattern has been learned, it must also be mirrored.

A beginner forever?

Unfortunately, most taijiquan people only learn the first stage, and remain a perpetual beginner.
Neglecting the remaining stages leaves the form meaningless and shallow.

I strongly believe that students should limit themselves to learning and fully developing in just one style only. By learning many styles and collecting many forms we simply cannot have sufficient time to practice.

Few have the resources or talent to be the master of more than one style. The really good teachers focus on one style.

(Adam Hsu)

A worthless form?

People perform sequences without the slightest idea of what the 13 postures represent.
They have no idea how to apply the movements.
If tested, their bodies are physically and emotionally tense.
A hollow pattern is worthless.
It denies the student the true health benefits of the art and perpetuates bad practice.

Stage 2 - Whole-body movement

Once the pattern is familiar, the student moves onto stage 2.
The focus is upon the cultivation of whole-body strength and putting this into every form movement.
Skill with
whole-body movement will cause the form pattern to change.


Internal biomechanical concerns are incorporated.
The way in which the body is used is now the concern.
Every single movement is imbued with whole-body strength.
An understanding of The Way and Its Power, The Tai Chi Classics and Taoism is necessary.

Stage 3 - Martial applications

Traditionally, it is said that there are at least seven applications for every form movement.
There are three types of martial application within form: chin na, jing and shuai jiao.
Competence in all three areas of skill is required.
A student must be capable of skilfully applying the form in a thorough and convincing way against an earnest attacker.


All applications adhere to the taijiquan principles (4 ounces of pressure, 13 postures, softness, stickiness, yielding, peng etc).
Failure to employ the internal principles will result in aggression, strength versus strength, tension in the muscles, locked joints, resistance, disconnected limb movement and rushing.

Taijiquan fighting method

Your form should eventually look and feel like taijiquan combat.
Your combat should look and feel like taijiquan form.
If this is not the case, what exactly are you training and why?
When form and function become the same, it is easy to extract useful applications.

Stage 4 - Shen

Shen is a vitality that can be seen shining through a person; it enlivens the body and refreshes the mind.
The eyes look expressive and alert.
For 'shen' to manifest, a person must lose all self-consciousness.
There is no more self or other, just movement, just sensation/feeling.
Instead of feeling apart from what is happening, we feel the physics of the movement, the kinetic flow.

The form is like that of a falcon about to seize a rabbit, and the shen is like that of a cat about to catch a rat.

(Wu Yu-hsiang)

Lively and alert

Form is based on animal movements, kung fu and combat strategies.
Find grace, nimbleness, agility, coordination, mind/body connection, patience and balance.
Experience the dynamic vigour of a falcon and the alertness of a cat...

Stage 5 - Natural-feeling body use

Instead of glossy, flamboyant, outward show, the attention turns inward.
The taijiquan is not ornate.
It is simple, subtle, direct, flowing, understated and natural.
Within the slow spirals, curves and gentle steps can be found a grace that is difficult to articulate.

At one with the Tao

High-level form practice harmonises the body and the mind.
We move in a natural, healthy, strong fashion.
The lessons of Taoism are enfolded within the Art.


The form is one method for exploring the many insights offered by Taoism.
It is a hands-on approach to spirituality.
It is a physical journey that will lead to an inner search for meaning and understanding within the student.
The lessons learned can be taken into everyday life.

Time served?

Many tai chi students in the world are beginners who never move beyond the beginning.
They remain beginners over decades of practice.
'Time served' is meaningless if the quality of what is being practiced is not considered carefully.
Progress through the 5 stages is essential.

Page created 6 March 1995
Last updated 03 April 2017