Sadly, a lot of Tai Chi teachers seem to be under the impression that by simply practicing the form for many years you will somehow magically acquire all the abilities you need to manifest martial skill when required. It goes without saying that these people are simply deluded. Applications practice is something that goes on far too rarely in most Tai Chi Chuan classes, but like everything else it has its pros and cons. Chief amongst the pros are that there’s simply no other way to tell if you’re really doing a move with the right feel unless you know what that move is intended to do in application. And I don’t mean ‘know’ in the sense of intellectual understanding, I mean actually being able to do it. Even if you’re practicing Tai Chi Chuan for health reasons only, you can still make your form better by practicing the applications. Becoming familiar with the application can give you direct, first hand knowledge of how that move should work in a way that theoretical knowledge never will.
The cons of application practice are rarely discussed, but here’s one to mull over: I think it’s possible that a heavy emphasis on application practice over other 2-person exercises can give you an over rated sense of your ability to defend yourself. It’s important to remember that practicing applications from the form against a compliant training partner is not the same as doing them against a resisting and determined attacker. While no training situation can ever be the same as ‘using your art for real’, you do need to train in something closer to a real situation to get an idea of how to apply techniques against a determined attacker.
Applications practice remains a valuable part of the training. One of the benefits I’ve found from this practice is noticing how the simple introduction of a person on the end of your techniques can totally change how you do them – usually for the worse. You’ll probably notice that you stupidly throw away a lot of the skills you’ve been training so hard on in your form work. For instance, this week we were working on a simple application of the Ward-off posture, where you deflect the attackers punch with your ward-off, then use Roll Back on his next attack to unbalance him before applying a counter. While I successfully deflected the attackers punches, the application just didn’t feel comfortable when I tried it, and after a brief analysis of what I was doing I noticed that even with lots of practice I was still making basic errors. Under the threat of attack I had immediately resorting to just using my arms to deflect the incoming stirke, rather than turning the body from the waist.
In the practice of Tai Chi Chuan we must learn to use our body in a different way to the way we normally use it in everyday life, at a very deep level, so that you can still move that way when under pressure. Applications practice is a great way of upping the amount of pressure and seeing whether you’re really as good as you thought you were when fighting the air.