In Part I of this article on variables of form practice we addressed when and why one should practice faster taiji (tai chi) forms. Here we take up another variable: practicing “the other side.” I understand that practicing the mirror image of forms is not a new concept. Many people do it, many also do not. My intention here is simply to encourage those that do not, but are ready, to give it a try by detailing the reasons WHY it is good training.
Why practice “the other side”?
The broadsword form is what first taught me the benefit—nay, the necessity—of including left-handed form practice. If I had to pick a favorite form, it would probably be the broadsword: swinging that weight around just feels marvelous, especially for strength and range of motion in my combat-sport injured shoulders. My broadsword is quite heavy, and I have learned that the feedback from the weight of the sword is invaluable in telling me when I am strong-arming or being lazy and faking the movement—a heavier sword will often tell you if your internal mechanics are not correct. In my opinion to practice with overly light swords or swords made exclusively for performance art (the flashy ones that make boinging sounds when you thrust them) is to miss out on a great deal of the benefit of broadsword practice. But I digress . . .
The absurdity of always practicing sword one-handed is quickly apparent to anyone practicing with a heavier sword. Why would anyone exercise one hand/arm/shoulder but not the other? Taiji means balance, and exercising one side but not the other is the opposite of taiji. When Laoze said “one-sidedness is despised by those travelling the way” I think he was probably talking about taiji form. (Well OK, so taiji was created about 2000 years after Laoze. But still, the quote applies.)
Not that any of us are ever going to experience a sword dual, but there is also an original martial purpose for training the sword with both hands. In the classic Book of Five Rings the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi advises that one must train “from the start” with both hands. Though I do initially introduce broadsword form right-handed only, I believe it is to students” considerable benefit to use both and quickly move them to practicing with the left hand also. (Weapon forms are extensions of the barehand forms and are typically not introduced until the students have grasped an understanding of the mechanics of the barehand forms.) The challenge to try the form left-handed is usually met with some trepidation, but I often joke that they will thank me if they get one arm cut off in a sword dual but are still able to continue with the other hand. At which time someone usually brings up the Monty Python Holy Grail sword fight scene 🙂 . But without exception every student quickly grasps and appreciates the benefit of practicing with both arms.
I also discovered that practicing the sword with the non-dominant side would inform and improve my dominant side. The movements would sometimes feel more effortless left-handed than right-handed, and I realized that my dominant hand was sometimes taking over and muscling the movement. Practicing sword left-handed improved awareness in my right-handed form. Considerably.
When practicing the barehand forms left-handed I observed the same benefit: the left-hand side would sometimes feel less forceful and therefore inform and improve my right-hand side. And I soon realized another thing: it felt really good to do the movement on the other side. I am not familiar with other styles, but the Chen style does include strenuous postures. One example is “Lean with Back.” This posture requires very tight silk reeling; a spiralled body with the weight mostly on one leg and in a relatively lower posture, the waist turned to a maximum, and one shoulder open and the other closed. It is a relatively strenuous position and to place the body repeatedly in this posture in one direction, but not its opposite, is certainly not a balanced approach to developing flexibility and strength. Eventually it feels not only good, but necessary, to practice this and other movements of the form on both sides.
Here I will repeat: taiji means balance. It is important to know that all of taiji is dynamic stretching (refer to our article on the “elastic force” of taiji for discussion from a western/scientific perspective on the mechanics and function of dynamic stretching in taiji movement). To do certain movements of the form on one side only is therefore to always elongate or stretch the body in one direction only. This is not only poor physical training, but taken to an extreme can lead to imbalance, misalignment, or even injury, especially in the lower back/hips and especially in more advanced practitioners who have significantly developed core strength and internal power. Beginners can (and should) do the form repeatedly on one side only to learn the mechanics more efficiently. Once internal power is developed and the characteristics of taiji movement are understood and internalized, however, the practitioner can and should practice both sides for more balanced dynamic stretching/physical training. (For efficient and continuing growth and to avoid overuse injury, at this stage the practitioner should also decrease the relative amount of time spent practicing form in favor of other components of practice.)
Beginners can (and should) do the form repeatedly on one side only to learn the mechanics more efficiently. Once internal power is developed and the characteristics of taiji movement are understood and internalized, however, the practitioner can and should practice both sides for more balanced dynamic stretching/physical training.
Another benefit of practicing the mirror image of forms is that it allows the practitioner to again experience “beginner’s mind.” The only difference between form and moving qigong exercises is that the form demands execution of constantly changing motor skills, while qigong exercises allow one to practice a single movement repetitively (and on both sides!). The qigong exercises therefore allow the practitioner to go deeper into the movement more quickly, while the form affords the cognitive benefit of memorizing choreography and acquiring additional motor skills. Once one side of a form is memorized completely, practicing the mirror image allows one to continue exercising and challenging the brain to learn new movement—a very important benefit as we grow older. (Learning new forms is of course good for the same reason. In our classes, in addition to repetition of meditation and long-learned qigong and forms I am constantly challenging the older students with new movement drills.)
Once one side of a form is memorized completely, practicing the mirror image allows one to continue exercising and challenging the brain to learn new movement—a very important benefit as we grow older.
Just as there is a martial purpose to sword practice with both hands, there is a martial purpose—fundamental to taiji martial theory—of practicing the barehand forms on both sides. As we have explained in detail, the eight forces (peng/lu/ji/an/cai/lie/zhou/kao) and five cardinal directions of taiji are nothing more than descriptions of the direction and duration (i.e. range) of force. In combination they include every possible long, medium, and short range force that can be produced by the human body (with shoulders/hips, elbows/knees, or hands/feet), in any direction (left, right, forward, backward, up, down, or diagonal). Taiji martial theory first and foremost emphasizes maintaining rootedness, uprightness, and balance, but there is no balanced strike in any martial art that is not included in the taiji forms. And so the martial objective of taiji form practice is to instill complex motor programs necessary to exert a maximum and balanced force efficiently in any direction, at any time, and over any distance, with any part of the body. Practicing forms on both sides helps to truly be able to do this at a high level.
. . . the martial objective of taiji form practice is to instill complex motor programs necessary to exert a maximum and balanced force efficiently in any direction, at any time, and over any distance, with any part of the body. Practicing forms on both sides helps to truly be able to do this at a high level.
A subset of this idea is simply becoming comfortable in “switching stances” and leading with either the right or left hand (or foot). I understand and am a strong proponent of the argument that, for self-defense, it is best to master a few movements—the idea behind the famous saying “I am not afraid of someone who practices a thousand forms, I am worried about someone who practices one form a thousand times.” That is very true, and the best fighters all have a few techniques that they are the very best in the world at using. But it is also true that the best fighters all switch stances for both offensive and defensive advantage, are capable of quickly learning their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and adjusting their stance/position as necessary, and are skilled at scrambling in any direction in unexpected or unstable situations.
As a final argument for doing the form on both sides, I would simply note that all other components of taiji training—santi standing meditation, moving qigong, agility drills, and push-hands—are all practiced on both left and right sides. Why would the form be practiced exclusively on one side?
These then in summary are four reasons for doing the mirror image of the form: 1) it will inform and improve your right-handed form, 2) taiji movement is strength and dynamic stretching exercise, and it is essential—especially for more advanced practitioners—to do both sides for balanced training and to avoid possible misalignment or overuse injury, 3) it is a simple way to continue and deepen the cognitive exercise/benefit of learning new forms as we grow older, and 4) movement (and therefore potential force exertion) in any direction, with any part of the body and over any range, is a fundamental martial theory/objective of taijiquan. To this list there is also one more important reason I can add: it is fun.
Taiji form is qigong—mind/body/spirit integrative practice—and the depth of mind/body/spirit integration defines the intensity of one’s practice. To build your gongfu always strive to go deeper. But after you do go deep then you can go wide, without being shallow. You must practice seriously, but you must also play and have fun. It is, after all, called playing taiji. If you haven’t yet, play with the other side occasionally and have fun with it.