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Most people have seen groups of tai chi students moving together in a dance-like sequence. This is referred to as 'form'.
The form is a catalogue of combat moves; the strikes, throws, techniques and applications of tai chi have been smoothed together into a flowing routine. This makes them easier to practice solo.
13 areas of study
Form is just one area of tai chi study. There are 12 more.
When tai chi was first introduced to the West, people drew parallels with yoga. The movements were often seen as being 'postures'. This was an error. Postures are static. Tai chi is about movement.
Chang San-feng said: Tai chi is like a great river rolling on unceasingly. Form teaches a student how, why and when to move. The student should not be standing still.
The Chinese word 'shi' though commonly translated as 'postures' has the meanings of 'appearance', 'situation', 'patterns'... Therefore, the more accurate translation of 'shi' here should be patterns. Tai chi is constructed from eight fundamental basic strategic moving patterns and five manoeuvring stepping techniques.
Form is all about physics. By aligning the body in a balanced, biomechanically efficient manner, the skeleton works better.
Rounded, natural body movements feel comfortable and easy to perform. Your aim is to cultivate whole-body movement, employ whole-body strength and generate whole-body power.
How do you move?
Most adults imagine that they move pretty well... Then they enter a tai chi training hall and discover that their coordination, balance, gait, sensitivity, awareness and body control is actually poor.
Their steps are often very heavy and their legs are locked and immobile. There is a sense of clumsiness. People frequently walk in an agitated manner; over-striding and erratic.
The lower back is inflexible, the sacroiliac does not move correctly. The back is stooped, the neck stiff, shoulders raised, muscles tense and the hands are tight. They are jerky and uncoordinated.
Why do you move badly?
The average adult has spent a lifetime using their body in a haphazard, careless way. Sitting too much, leaning, slouching, favouring one arm over the other. When they exercise, they do so sloppily.
At no point have they actually undertaken any sort of deliberate training designed to improve 'body use'.
How you move and how you use your body affects you all day every day. From the moment you get out of bed you are using your body. You either use it badly or well.
People are limited by their physical and mental habits.
Tai chi form trains your body to move in a natural, spontaneous, comfortable, balanced, free manner that has a positive effect on your life.
Why did they make the forms long
in the old days, like the tai chi forms?
Because the longer you can keep your intent awake and mind-body unified and
focus on your movements, the stronger your mind is, the better chance you have
of winning a fight.
Imagine watching a fully-grown cat move... It is typically smooth, comfortable and lithe. There are no tensed muscles, no pumped up arms, raised 'gym shoulders'. The animal does not get out of breath.
A cat can go from complete passivity to combat readiness instantaneously. It does not tense muscles and prepare. It just moves. There is a sense of ease.
No struggling, grunting or groaning, no pain in the back or the knees. The body responds instantly to the dictates of the mind. A cat is spontaneous and free. Young people are the same... Learn from this?
An authentic tai chi form re-trains the body to move naturally and freely. As a student moves through the syllabus, they are challenged with increasingly sophisticated stepping patterns.
The cat-like grace of tai chi encourages agile, strong movement, excellent poise, high energy levels and a feeling of vigour. Learn how to move with the easy, relaxed balance of a professional dancer or a large cat.
In order to improve how the body is used, it is necessary to bring the mind back to the here and now. This is what we call 'meditation'.
Instead of thinking about the news, TV, work, politics or gossip, you need to be here, in the present moment, paying attention to what you are doing, to what is actually taking place.
By being fully present you can observe what your body is doing, and gently encourage it to move in a different manner.
Understand what you are learning
Imagine learning a song from another culture, sung in a foreign language... You know the tune, can sing the words accurately and beautifully.
But you do not know what any of the words mean or what the song is about. It could be a love song or a song of sadness and sorrow. You have no idea.
The inflection, emphasis, rhythm, tempo, timing and expression could be entirely awry. And you would not even know.
Tai chi form without application, function, a grasp of purpose and strategy is like a song without meaning.
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.
Form without function
Not being able to apply a tai chi form in combat is the tai chi equivalent of not being able to read...
If you do form without a comprehensive understanding of the martial applications, then the form is literally meaningless. Without purpose, it is merely a dance. This is not tai chi.
A student must apply each and every movement of the form thoroughly and convincingly in combat.
They must adhere to the tai chi strategies and principles outlined in The Tai Chi Classics, 36 Strategies and The Art of War. There are at least 7 applications per pattern of movement.
Traditional tai chi forms are always martial in nature; they teach the student exactly how to move their body in combat.
Practice and martial application utilise precisely the same movements; although themes, tactics and skills can be improvised according to preference.
The form trains the body to move this way automatically. It should not be necessary to change or adapt the form in any way for martial use. Muscle memory and habit are ingrained.
The older athlete regards form as a means of energy conservation and
the great athlete saves energy because his extra skill makes each motion
more effective – he makes fewer needless motions and his conditioned body
uses less energy per movement.
Page created 2 March 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023