8 stages of form
Whole-body movement

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8 stages of form

There are 8 stages to studying any form:

  1. The pattern

  2. Biomechanics

  3. Shen (fighting spirit/martial intent)

  4. Martial applications (7 per movement)

  5. Whole-body strength (neigong)

  6. Whole-body movement (form)

  7. Whole-body power (jing)

  8. Natural-feeling body use

Form changes

The 8 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.

A beginner forever?

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

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)

Slow form

The Long Yang form is often known as the 'slow form'. The slow, deliberate movements encourage concentration and allow the student time to become familiar with the coordination.
There should be no attempt made to speed up the sequence. Slower movement will also develop muscular strength and body control.

Stage 1 - The pattern

Stage 1 is the pattern, outline, the sequence of movements. There are many versions of the pattern. Each pattern involves distinct alterations to both the appearance and the functionality of the form itself.


The form is usually practiced slowly e.g. the Long Yang sequence will take at least 15 minutes to perform (ideally 20 minutes).

Deliberate practice

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.

Don't be concerned about learning so many moves; learn a few well.

(Bruce Frantzis)

Stage 2 - Biomechanics

Once the pattern is familiar, the student moves onto stage 2.
By moving the body in an increasingly integrated manner, the strength increases and the correct muscles are used for the production of power.
Lines of force are critical at this stage. In particular the maxim: square on the inside, round on the outside.
This builds up a lot of physical power and every movement feels to come from the muscles of the central torso, back and legs.
The initial movements are quite large and obvious, with the spine and hip kwa notably opening and closing as the framework coils and releases the joints.

Stage 3 - Shen

Shen is the 'killer energy' quality present in good quality tai chi; it makes the attacker feel uncomfortable and wrong-footed.
There is a fullness to the tai chi that would otherwise be absent. Peter Southwood maintained that tai chi without shen is weak and ineffectual in combat. The exponent looks like a "wet sock".
Their poise, demeanour and bearing lack that vital quality of alertness and sharpness needed in martial arts practice.

Stage 4 - Martial

Not being able to apply a form is the tai chi equivalent of not being able to read... Your form should eventually look and feel like tai chi combat. Your combat should look and feel like tai chi form.
If this is not the case, what exactly are you training and why?

Functional form

When form and function become the same, it is easy to extract useful 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. A student must be capable of skilfully applying the form in a thorough and convincing way against an earnest attacker.

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)

Stage 5 - Whole-body strength (neigong)

The focus is upon the cultivation of whole-body strength and putting this into every form movement. Students must learn 50 neigong concerns that assist in the development of whole-body strength.
Every neigong quality adds an extra physiological change to the body, intensifying the effectiveness of each movement.
An understanding of The Way and Its Power, The Tai Chi Classics and Taoism is necessary.

Stage 6 - Whole-body movement (form)

If your movements feel like stances/postures then you are way too tense. You need to be free to move in any direction without difficulty or hesitation.
Peter Southwood described the tai chi movement as being akin to an amoeba. An amoeba is a single-cell organism.
For one part of an amoeba to move, all parts must move. Every single movement is a whole-body movement. This is exactly how we move in tai chi.
Consider how a caterpillar moves or how a snake undulates. Look at the biological physics involved.

Stage 7 - Whole-body power (jing)

It is necessary to differentiate clearly between the types of jing at your disposal. Energy release without focus is random and clumsy.
There is a distinct difference between each jing. You must be conscious of the quality/nature/essence of the jing you intend to utilise. Movement begins with intention.

Many excessively bounce around learning the next 'new' form or movement set without ever extracting the real internal value from any of them.

(Bruce Frantzis)

Stage 8 - Natural-feeling body use

The dividing line between you and tai chi is no longer clear. Your habitual movements have been re-shaped by the tai chi. You have become naturally unnatural or unnaturally natural.
The tai chi is not ornate. It is simple, subtle, direct, flowing, understated and natural. Instead of glossy, flamboyant, outward show, the attention turns inward.

At one with the Tao

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.
High-level form practice harmonises the body and the mind. We move in a natural, healthy, strong fashion. 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 8 stages is essential.

Deliberate practice

Hard work alone is not enough, though. Simply working hard will not necessarily lead to progress.
It needs to be deliberate, focused improvement designed to improve your practice by developing key skills outlined by your instructor.
The student must implement corrections, study the recommended books, undertake assignments and challenge their comfort zone.

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)

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Page created 6 March 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023