Tai chi without forms?

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Form debate

One of the internal martial arts is called
xingyiquan (form/intention fist). Xingyiquan students use forms to practice their movements.
Xingyiquan has an offshoot -
yiquan (mind fist)/dachengquan (the great accomplishment). Instead of forms, static qigong postures are used, along with various combat drills.
Some tai chi people like the idea of training their taijiquan without forms.
This is fine if they want to do that - but it would no longer be taijiquan - in the same way that yiquan is not xingyiquan.

Why train form?

If you practice tai chi as though it were yoga, karate, wing chun or boxing, you will go astray. The tai chi body shape is protean; adapting to the ongoing change of circumstance.
Your tai chi must be fast, sensitive, alert, powerful and lively.
The cat-like grace of tai chi encourages controlled, agile, strong movement, excellent poise, high energy levels and a feeling of vigour.
Form is the easiest, most effective way to train this.
It trains the body to move in a strategic, powerful, balanced manner, capable of evading attacks and delivering punches, kicks and grapples.

Training tool

Form is a training tool for whole-body movement and martial sensibilities.
It enables the practitioner to train multiple skills in a systematic way without the need for additional exercises.
There are 8 stages to learning form: pattern, biomechanics, shen, martial applications, whole-body strength, whole-body movement, whole-body power, natural-feeling body use.
Each form must also be mirrored.

How do you move?

Form reflects the way in which you personally move in tai chi. If your form is clumsy, then you are clumsy and that is useless for combat.
Similarly, if you are tense or have poor use of your structure, your form will reveal this.
Training drills or static postures is not as dynamic as form. You can immediately see the ability level of most exponents just by watching how they move during form.

Confronted by limitations of effectiveness, the martial arts of the West responded with a continuous crafting of superior equipment. Confronted with similar limitations, the Asian warrior responded by fashioning a better self. The warrior turned not to technology in making his sword a better tool for fighting. Influenced by contemplative aspects of Taoism and Buddhism and by the self-discipline of Confucianism, he turned inward. He fine-tuned his body and mind in order to better manipulate his sword.

(Dave Lowry)


One facet of any Zen-related discipline is the repetition of a form or pattern; the accurate reproduction of a deliberate sequence of actions.
The aim of this practice is to lose the sense of self. No thinking, no worrying, planning or anxiety. Just being

Learning from form

The form contains an unbelievable amount of information that any diligent student can access if they are patient enough and have awareness.
For every movement, consider balance, stability and mobility.
Is your movement comfortable, natural yet strong (without tensing or resisting)? Are your joints mobile? Can you feel any discomfort or awkwardness? Where are your knees aligned relative to the toes?
How stable is your balance? Would it be possible to pick up one of your feet easily? Do you feel relaxed?


The movements need to provide an elastic structural framework that is optimally aligned for the transmission of groundpath, without any discomfort or physical tension.
Your body should not feel strained in any way at all; the movements should not be exaggerated.
If the form feels like hard work, you need to adjust how you are doing the movements.

Whole body

Form teaches students to do everything using their entire body. It reduces the risk of injury and significantly increases their physical strength and striking power.
But such skill is not easy. Considerable patience and long-term challenging practice are required

Follow the form

Consider the words: 'form', 'perform' and 'formal' - they all have the connotation of doing things a particular way.
Your martial application must follow the style of the form. That way, your art will look, feel and work as taijiquan.

Move the right way

Wing chun combat looks like wing chun, judo combat looks like judo, aikido combat looks like aikido... You get the idea?
Your form should 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?

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)

Go deeper

Once the form choreography is accurate and familiar, the real work begins. The choreography is the beginning of your tai chi, not the end of it.
Instead of acquiring a new form, understand the one you have. Explore the body mechanics, how power is being generated, what lessons it is teaching you, and what you can do with it.
Feel it become smooth and subtle as your body grows into the sequence.


The taijiquan way of moving is the key to taijiquan combat. Every movement and every potential application must be produced by a whole-body action.
There are no disconnected strikes in taijiquan. You must figure out the correct body mechanics required to produce the applications.
This is not easy. Internal skill is necessary at this stage.

eyond form?

Form serves to show you what the taijiquan should look like in combat. But do not be confused here. Form practice and form application are not enough for combat skill.
They are the beginning, not the end.
A student must accumulate a massive repertoire of applications featuring chin na, shuai jiao and striking skills.
These must be practiced relentlessly, so that the underlying principles become apparent. Every application must become comfortable and familiar.
As the student becomes adept with combat skills, their form deepens too. They begin to see new possibilities, insights and potential. They experience connections and associations.

The ancient Masters

Ancient taijiquan masters determined that form was the best way to practice the taijiquan way of moving. Who are we to debate their insights?
They developed taijiquan skills at a time in Chinese history where fighting ability meant the difference between life and death.
It seems rather arrogant for modern people to be second-guessing the masters responsible for creating the art in the first place


A good form contains all that you need. The important thing is to peel away the layers. It take students a few years to find the essence of the movements and really employ them.
It might take a lifetime to appreciate the genius of just one form. Practicing tai chi forms from different styles simultaneously divides the attention and wastes precious time.
Scrapping form altogether may sound outrageous, innovative or clever. But it may also be naive and somewhat premature...

Consider this: Most people live lives that are not particularly physically challenging. They sit at a desk, or if they move around, it's not a lot. They aren't performing manoeuvres that require tremendous balance and coordination. Thus they settle into a low level of physical capabilities - enough for day-to-day activities or maybe even hiking or biking or playing golf or tennis on the weekends, but far from the level of physical capabilities that a highly trained athlete possesses.

The reason that most people don't possess extraordinary physical capabilities isn't because they don't have the capacity for them, but rather because they're satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it.

The same thing is true for all the mental activities we engage in. We learn enough to get by but once we reach that point we seldom push to go beyond.

(Anders Ericsson)

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Page created 18 April 2005
Last updated 27 April 2020