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.
4 thoughts on “Variables of Form Practice— Part II: The Other Side”
Two years later, I DID teach myself the mirror version of the Yang long form. What I was trying to say before, and still stand by, is that it’s extremely difficult, at least for most people, to figure it out on your own. I did it. It was difficult, and a lot of work. Certainly well worth it, but I just hadn’t been able to make it a priority before. I’m teaching it to people now. My point was that instead of just saying “hey, you should do the mirror form”, we need to teach it! No doubt I gained something by figuring it out on my own, but I’d much rather have had someone teach me. Next step for me is to learn the mirror version of the Yang fast set.
I’m all for practicing on the other side, but you failed to mention a rather large elephant in the room– figuring out how to do it on the opposite side is HARD! Maybe not for you, but for most people it’s very difficult, certainly for me.
My teachers don’t teach the form that way. If I’m working from a video, it doesn’t come in left and right handed versions; neither do books. I’d love to do any of my forms, or at least some of them, mirror-style, but it’s very time-consuming and difficult to figure it out, and even once you have it figured out it’s one more form to practice. I do do parts of the Yang 108 mirror-style, but I haven’t worked out the whole thing.
Dan Lee used to have some of his students learning the mirror form; in fact he’d have the mirror group and the regular Yang long form group facing each other. He also devised a symmetrical form.
I think doing the forms mirror style is very cool, but not really necessary. Originally, when the forms were developed as part of an actual fighting system, right-handed martial artists developed right-handed forms and were fine with that, just as right-handed boxers generally don’t practice left handed; right handed baseball players usually don’t switch hit, let alone switch throw, and generally human beings are not that symmetrical or ambidextrous, and get by fine. Switching to the other hand if your sword hand is injured wouldn’t be practical for most people. Just ask Jaime Lannister!
In Yang style, Grasp Bird’s Tail, for instance, is usually only done on one side, but that sequence has applications against various attacks, including either a right or left handed punch.
Brush Knee is done numerous times right handed and only a couple of times left handed, but if you want you can practice it in a line; do as many as you want on each side. Same with Repulse Monkey. In fact you can Brush Knee down and Monkey back. Or you can do 5 instead of 3, to get in an extra left hander. You can practice Cloud Hands in the other direction. But Fair Lady at the Shuttles– not easy! Same with just about any weapons form; they all involve a lot of spinning around to different angles.
I’m somewhat ambidextrous, like to do things with my off hand, and I could do, say, a left handed sword form if I had someone to teach it to me, or even a video, but trying to figure it on my own is prohibitively difficult and time-consuming. However, I can practice a few moves mirror style; just not a whole form of 80 or more movements!
I agree it’s not for everyone – and tried to stipulate in a couple places in the article that it is certainly not for beginners. I also attempted to note that it is not a primary focus of one’s practice and should not be done at the expense of the intensity of mind/body/spirit integration.
However I don’t think I was ignoring an elephant – that it is difficult is precisely one of the four benefits/purposes – continuing to challenge the mind/body connection. I often encourage beginners by telling them “the harder you feel it is, the more benefit you are getting by doing it.” If it was easy we wouldn’t need to practice it at all. I would say that anyone believing that they would need someone to teach them the mirror side is not yet ready to do it. If you are ready you will definitely not need anyone to show you how – you own experience becomes the teacher.
The product of the mind/body integration and development of internal power is the ability to move in any direction, at any time, over any distance (long, medium, and short range), with maximum efficiency and power. This is peng/lu/ji/an/cai/lie zhou/kao – this is the martial application of form. I also know well and spoke of the marital advantage of limiting training and of “knowing one technique very well.”
As, I believe, with any gongfu (musicianship, sailing, whatever) – at some point the practitioner evolves and their art becomes . . . an art. At this level there is no right or wrong or better or lesser, there is just one’s understanding, experience, character, interpretation and unique style. No two artists are the same. The article is purely my experience and opinion. I do believe and stand firmly behind the stated reasons for doing the mirror image of forms.
As I tell every introductory class: don’t believe anything I say. Try/test/feel it and see if it makes sense or works for you.
Wow — you bring revelation to a new level — I have so MUCH to learn!!! I so wish I could come to your classes, but I teach on the same nights that you do.