“But when are we going to do some real Tai Chi?”
There’s more to Tai Chi than just forms!
When I teach, I cover a lot of basics: stretches, connection drills, stance and structure work for example. We look at postural alignment, different ways to develop strength, correct body mechanics such as opening and closing of the joints, and lots of two-person drills.
There’s always one student, usually someone who doesn’t train with me, who will ask: “when are we going to do some Tai Chi?”. I’m always shocked when I get asked this, especially because sometimes it comes from other instructors. When I ask what they mean by ‘Tai Chi’, I always get the response: “you know, the Tai Chi form”.
Tai Chi and the wheel
No Chinese martial art is just about practicing forms, and Tai Chi is no exception. All Chinese martial arts consist of lots of different aspects. A wheel is made of spokes: but it is the spaces between the spokes that make up the wheel. If you think of Chinese martial arts as this wheel, is is the spaces that create your skill as a practitioner. Tai Chi is no exception!
Form work is just one aspect of many in Chinese martial arts, including Tai Chi. Let’s take Chen Tai Chi for example. It’s made up of Zhan zhuang (stance training), training your root, posture work, silk reeling, single movement practice, footwork drills, weapons, two-person drills, push hands, sparring, stretching and flexibility, and much more. Yes, even the warmups are Tai Chi! If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like the content of our Tai Chi Foundation Course, you’d be right — there is much more to Tai Chi training than forms.
Don’t get me wrong — form training is an extremely important slice of the pie in Tai Chi. It helps you remember the body method and technique and has many benefits both martially and for your health. I myself rep out lots of form training in my daily practice alongside the other methods: but forms are part of a larger whole.
Developing body mechanics
The essence and skill of real Tai Chi Chuan consists of certain methods of movement, different types of strength, and particular qualities and energies that just aren’t going to develop through form practice alone. To develop these qualities in your Tai Chi requires breaking down each movement in often excruciating detail, drilling certain principles, and practicing hard. These techniques and skills are often very hard to explain, and while different teachers will give you a different perspective there is no shortcut to practice.
Let’s have a look at that ever-elusive principle: spoken about by many, truly understood by few.
“All movements originate from the dantien”
Dantien movement is the key to all of Tai Chi. But moving from the dantien isn’t just going to happen, even if you practice forms all the time. To develop the correct movement you have to first have other things in place. One of these is understanding the movement from your waist.
In Tai Chi when we talk about the waist, it’s not the area were we tie our belt around to hold our pants up. It’s the area below your ribcage and above your hip bone. A great drill to develop and understand waist movement is to stand with feet shoulder width apart, sink into your hips (Kua), and make a circle with your arms in front of your abdomen.
If you have a training partner, get them to grab your thighs with their hands, it makes it easier to feel the movement. Turn slowly side-to-side just using your waist — the slower the better — which in turn will move your arms. Your partner will be able to feel if you’re using your hips or your legs to turn — we don’t want this. In this exercise everything has to remain still and the only movement should come from your waist. Take your time. It’s a hard skill to learn and to begin with you might only be able to rotate a few degrees in each direction. But this little bit of movement is the kind of tiny detail that makes Tai Chi what it is — you will start to feel the benefits across your whole form.
Another quality required for your dantien to be activated is the opening, closing and sinking of your Kua, or ‘hip crease’ in English. Kua development requires focused stretching of the hip joint and the muscles around it, as well as lots of drills focusing on opening, closing, sinking and relaxing into it. Again, form work isn’t going to cut it here!
Hopefully you can begin to see why form work isn’t just choreography. There are a lot of requirements for good Tai Chi that aren’t just going to appear through form practice. These qualities have to be added into your form through drills and exercises once you are familiar with the choreography.
I’ve always believed that high level skill is just basics done really well. To me Tai Chi teaching these days has lots of gaps — or using the analogy mentioned earlier, lots of spokes missing. Most practitioners seem happy to just learn and practice lots of forms. In my opinion this misses the essence, the Kung Fu of Tai Chi. These drills, exercises, spokes or basics are the core of good form work — the essence of good Kung Fu.
To me without these essentials you have no Kung Fu — just empty forms!
If you’re interested in this type of training, check out our Tai Chi School Foundation course at taichi.school — it’s completely designed around the training mentality I talk about in this article. It’s over 16 hours of Chen Tai Chi, going into all the detail you need to take your practice to the next level.