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Form is the sequence of movements that people associate with the words 'tai chi'. Traditionally, it took 6 years to learn the form pattern correctly.
In the 20th century, tai chi form was simplified and shortened. Short forms are now very popular. Sifu Waller does not teach short forms.
An earnest student will spend their entire life exploring the form, increasing their skill, knowledge and insight through daily practice.
Beginners focus upon the pattern, the outline of form. This is hard enough to learn. Where to face, how and where to put the feet, what the hands are doing...
But this is not really form. It is a vague, sketchy shell.
When a new starter is given a form movement to practice, they sometimes grow impatient and seek the next move. Although they cannot perform the first move correctly, they want more.
It is necessary to spend quite a lot of time with each movement - a handful of repetitions is not enough.
Initially, a new starter will only get a vague sense of a movement. That is enough to begin with. However, to make progress you need to see the detail.
You must understand the underlying body mechanics of each movement. When you can see how any one movement really works, you realise that you have a lot to practice.
When you begin to see the detail contained in one form, you can see why a student spends a while on the tai chi basics. A beginner initially only learns section 1 of the form.
Section 1 is the first 2 minutes of a 15-20 minute form. There are 5 taijiquan forms to learn in our syllabus.
Students learn to focus on what they are doing. They keep their mind on what is right in front of them. For many people, this is a very challenging endeavour.
It will take considerable practice and patience. And it cannot be forced... Concentration is a necessary first step.
Tai chi offers an opportunity to come to terms with making mistakes and also the experience of 'being corrected'. The complex nature of the art demands a very unusual degree of accuracy.
A slight deviation from the necessary position can mean weakness and imbalance.
Some new starters become paranoid about making mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, and not just in class. Our lives are littered with words and acts of foolishness. It is human.
You cannot avoid making mistakes. But perhaps you can learn from them, grow and move on?
Learning from mistakes
People frequently fail to learn from their mistakes. They just keep on doing the same thing again and again and again. There is far more to intelligence than acquisition. We must be alert.
If something does not work, it is necessary to determine why it failed and try something else. This capacity to change is a key factor.
A dull mind is doomed to repeat the same error continually. An intelligent mind adapts and moves on.
Flowing or flawed?
Some intermediate students make the mistake of trying to make their form flow. This is absurd. It always (without exception) leads to disconnected movement.
Be patient. Flow comes later on...
Students need to become familiar with the sequence. This will take a lot of practice. Ideally, at home, between lessons.
A common excuse offered by lazy students is that they do not want to practice at home for fear of making mistakes... How exactly can they hope to do the form correctly without practice?
Improvement comes from familiarity. Yes, they will make many, many mistakes. This is inevitable. The reason why you should train at home is to gain the habit of where to move, what to do.
It will not be accurate, but it is a necessary starting place.
Form improves through corrections and awareness. The instructor corrects your form.
Your capacity to understand and implement those corrections is directly linked to how receptive, observant and attentive you are.
If you are prideful, stubborn or lazy, you will not make changes to your form. Awareness is something that needs to be cultivated.
It involves having an eye for the art, for perceiving what the instructor is actually doing. Not what you think they are doing.
A beginner must pay strict attention to the lessons taught in the body qigong exercises. The alignment concerns should be directly employed in the form.
When a beginner can perform the sequence accurately (albeit robotically), they have the 'square form'.
Square on the inside
Tai chi should be "Square on the inside and round on the outside". This means that the internal framework and network of body parts must be aligned and moving in linear paths of force.
If you skip this stage of your training, your form will be devoid of power.
The main problem with the square form is that the beginner is normally extremely tense. Only through ongoing relaxation, ease and patience can they hope to lose the unnecessary stiffness in the muscles.
Relaxed, lengthened, flexible muscles will allow your joints and vertebrae to move freely and easily. It is this process of relaxation which starts you on the journey towards the round form.
4 July 1995
Last updated 11 April 2019