Should you practice taiji (tai chi) form at variable speeds? Should you practice “the other side?” Both are common questions with the same answer: yes, absolutely yes! But one must understand why and when to incorporate these variables for efficient practice. And to understand that one must of course first understand why the form is initially practiced slowly and on the same side.

Why the form is practiced slowly (and on the same side)

I have actually already answered this in several previous blog entries but shall briefly review here. We have detailed Eight Characteristics of Taiji Movement, and noted that the reason the form is done slowly is because that is THE ONLY WAY to learn and internalize those characteristics. They simply cannot be learned with fast movement. Taiji, and the other internal arts, are learned motor skills—they are not natural ability. Hence the saying from the taiji classics:

“There are many other styles of martial arts. Although the forms are different, they are all the same in that, ultimately, they are nothing more than the strong beating the weak and the slow yielding to the fast. All this is inherited natural ability. It is not related to the power that has to be learned.”

Further, as summarized in our article on elastic force: “internal power has two components—yin and yang aspects. The yang component is primarily core strength—learning to utilize core musculature to maximize power and efficiency of force output. It is the core musculature that flexes and stabilizes the spine, and it is core strength that is the mechanism behind the classical saying “power is released from the spine.”” Indeed, to efficiently recruit core musculature it is necessary to start with NO movement—one of the three primary reasons we listed for standing meditation practice. Then you may move slowly, and repetitively on the same side, to begin to internalize core recruitment in movement.

And from that same article on elastic force: “The yin component of internal power is improved inter- and intra-neuromuscular efficiency. This is the mind-body connection, and is the mechanism of the classical saying “the mind leads the qi, the body follows.” Taiji (tai chi) form is done slowly precisely because this is the most efficient way to exercise and improve neuromuscular efficiency.”

Another reason for doing the form slowly (and on the same side) is so that one may learn by following the teacher. One of our eight characteristics of taiji movement is “no excess, no deficiency,” and in one of our earliest blog postings, From Similar in Appearance to Similar in Spirit, we listed two reasons for emulating the teacher as precisely as possible: “If we find ourselves behind the instructor, we must be adding movement that should not be there (excess), and if we find ourselves ahead of the instructor, we are omitting movement (and/or, importantly, internal mechanics!) that should be there (deficiency).”

As noted in that article, though, the eventual goal is to go beyond appearance and to become “similar in spirit” to one’s teacher. No two masters look alike. My teacher does not look exactly like his teacher, and you will never be able to do the form exactly as your teacher, or anyone else, does it. Everybody is different, physically, mentally, and spiritually, and everybody changes over time. When you reach the level of understanding energy—traditional parlance for realizing the mechanics of internal power—you can, and must, make the art your own to continue improving.

Similarly, “perfecting” form is not a goal of of taiji practice. Of course there will always be the possibility of improving your form. This is part of the beauty of practice—the waters keep getting deeper, and with every practice we can recognize improvement. I have been teaching the introductory course to beginners for quite a long time now. Every time I do, I feel that I learn and improve. But the goal is not to perfect the outward appearance of form but rather to bring the art to daily life—to make the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects functional. And to continue efficiently improving the physical functionality of the art, after you have learned and internalized the principles of movement it is quite helpful, if not essential, to practice at different speeds, and with the mirror image of the forms.

. . . the goal is not to perfect the outward appearance of form but rather to bring the art to daily life—to make the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects functional.

Why practice a faster form?

The simple answer is so that you can do the movement fast, correctly and in accordance with taiji principles. I believe it is true that, to some extent, the neurological improvements of meditation and slow practice alone will automatically manifest in heightened reflexes—sudden, quick movement necessitated by some unexpected daily event. Remember the scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, when the older lady tested the younger lady by purposely knocking something off the table? Reflexively the young girl quickly reached for and caught the falling object, betraying her gongfu training to the older lady. Anybody who practices will someday experience a similar quick reflexive action in their daily life and will recognize and appreciate that it is a product of their training. (The manifestation of ling, or heightened, reflexive agility and mental intuition, is actually developed to the greatest extent in sitting meditation.)

But it is also true that, in order to move fast and maintain the principles of taiji movement, you have to practice the movement at faster speeds. A musician practices the scales slowly and methodically to learn more precisely. Would they, however, perform on stage without ever practicing a fast piece at tempo? Ridiculous, right? But would you assume you could move fast and continuously in accordance with taiji principles if you never actually practiced it? Would you assume you could defend yourself, or succeed in a combat sport, if you never practiced at speed with an unwilling opponent? I would hope not.

There are two different manifestations of speed in taiji movement. One is fajin, or explosive release of energy. This too must of course be practiced (in moderation) to be learned, but to cover this appropriately will require another article. Here I am simply talking about increasing the general speed of the form.

As you increase the speed of form, you are of course decreasing the time you have to focus on the principles of movement—correct posture, relaxed body/tranquil mind, all movement originating from the dantian (core), coordination of weight shifting, waist turning, and chest/abdomen opening and closing (i.e. silk reeling), intention and purpose of the movement (direction and length), nurturing, and efficiency (without excess or deficiency). These are the characteristics of taiji movement, and as noted above you must first internalize these in slow movement. AFTER you have internalized these then you can begin to play with occasionally increasing the speed of your form. If you wait to perfect them, though, well, you will have a long wait. 🙂

There is one major thing to focus on and practice in fast movement, and it is number 6 of our eight characteristics: clear expression of yin/yang energy at every moment, and smooth flow of yin/yang rhythm.

There is one major thing to focus on and practice in fast movement, and it is number 6 of our eight characteristics: clear expression of yin/yang energy at every moment, and smooth flow of yin/yang rhythm.

So what does that mean?

To quote from our Eight Characteristics of Taiji Movement article:

“Taiji means balance and flow of yin/yang, so this idea has to be on the short list of characteristics [of taiji movement]. I have been told that a frequent suggestion of Grandmaster Feng to many of his closest students was to “make the yin and yang energy more clear.””

The result of clear differentiation of yin and yang is circular, flowing movement and the cyclic storing and (gentle) releasing of energy that is the rhythm of taiji movement.

In my experience the TAIJI (i.e. balance and flow of yin/yang) is what is easily lost in faster movement—the “cyclic storing and gentle releasing of energy that is the rhythm of all taiji movement.” Every moment of every taiji form has a purpose and lies somewhere on the circular taiji diagram. Every moment has a yin or yang energy, determined by your intention (yi). When people start to move faster this differentiation of energy becomes blurred—the intention is no longer clear and focused, and the energy becomes undifferentiated, or becomes mostly yang, or mostly yin, without changing. Left and right, up and down, forward and backward, opening and closing—these aspects of yin/yang are part of the choreography and so not as difficult to retain. The key in faster movement is to retain the internal flow of the intention of softness and hardness, of storing and releasing. You have to have yin energy, softness and storing, to have and maintain yang energy, hardness and releasing. For maximum power, you must maintain the balance of yin (storing) and yang (releasing) energy. To keep these energies clear and flowing requires practice and attention in faster form movement.

For maximum power, you must maintain the balance of yin (storing) and yang (releasing) energy. To keep these energies clear and flowing requires practice and attention in faster form movement.

There is of course more to speed than form movement. For example, the skill of sticking and listening to a partner in push-hands allows one to move as fast as the partner, using their energy. And maintaining yin/yang balance (neutralizing and attacking, storing and releasing) is also learned and practiced in push-hands—first in slow drills, and later graduating to fast free-style movement. Just as in faster form movement, not maintaining this balance is a common error in the excitement of engagement with another person. What you learn in push-hands will inform your form, and what you learn in form movement will inform your push-hands.

I am definitely not saying that you should stop doing slow movement and switch to fast movement exclusively. Moderation and nurturing are essential principles of practice. Slow movement will always be the foundation of form practice and the path to deeper skill and understanding. My point is simply that to maintain the clear differentiation of intention and yin/yang energy in faster movement it is necessary to play with increasing the speed of your form. You don’t have to go as fast as you can—just gradually increase the speed from time to time. Less is more, but none is nothing. The benefit, and necessity, of practicing at faster speeds will be quite obvious once you have reached the level of understanding the differentiation of energy and yin/yang rhythm of taiji movement.

As a final advantage, and at the risk of stating the obvious, doing the forms at faster speeds will increase the aerobic benefit of practice.

Some forms even require a bit faster-than-average-barehand speed. For example, the dao (broadsword) form must be done a little quicker to maintain the momentum/energy of the sword. And speaking of broadsword, it was that that first taught me the benefit of practicing both sides, which is where we will pick up in Part II of this article.

fast form movement

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Variables of Form Practice— Part I: The Benefit of Faster Forms

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