There are things you can only work on in your Tai Chi training if you already have a certain amount of practice under your belt. Take for example the concept of continuous movement.
The original Classics say Tai Chi Chuan is “like a great river rolling on unceasingly.”
Sure, that’s easy to say, but is it easy to do?
The way Tai Chi Chuan is taught you inevitably learn the form as a series of individual movements linked together, with inevitable stops and starts. Then, after you get better at them, you can start to practice the form as one continuous flowing motion, the same way a piece of Chinese calligraphy is meant to be one continuous brush stroke (disclaimer: I known nothing about calligraphy, I’m just assuming this to be true).
In Tai Chi, the practice of learning to move so that everything is connected together smoothly at a constant rate, without speeding up or slowing down, is a skill in itself. If you can do it you still aren’t “doing Tai Chi” yet, not by a long shot, but you are learning one of the important pieces to the puzzle. Without having done enough form practice to not have to worry about what comes next, or about forgetting where you are, this skill simply cannot be developed.
Tai Chi forms are usually pretty long, so memorising an entire form, and then being able to perform it at a constant rate, without breaks or imperfections to that movement, is a significant undertaking. Add to that the fact that a lot of the body skills you need for Tai Chi are better worked on as repeated individual exercises (silk reeling exercises for example), and you find the idea of practicing a long, often difficult, form is slowly falling out of favour.
I see this a lot. The modern idea (which I think has a lot to do with influence from the ever-growing field of sports science) is that you really don’t need to practice a form at all. In fact, your time would be better spent on individual conditioning exercises.
So why do we have a Tai Chi form in the first place? That’s a good question to ask.
Why do we have a form?
The first thing to notice about the Tai Chi form is that it is designed to be performed. It has a start, a middle, and an end. This has led some people to think that its origins might lie in other performance arts, like ancient Chinese religious rituals, which were used for all sorts of reasons (banishing spirits, pacifying the ancestors, blessing the crops, etc) since these were often done as a type of performance at annual festivals, and also contained movements that were martial in nature, often done by priests carrying swords. In ancient times when war was fought using steel weapons these rituals would be performed before battles, to summon the spirits of ancient warriors to help assure a victory.
One of the leaders in this particular field of inquiry is Scott Phillips, who has written extensively about these performance aspects of Tai Chi and speculated about its origins in his book Possible Origins. Of course, others reject his theories entirely, I think mainly because none of the famous Tai Chi families, like the Chens or Yangs, share the same ideas on the origins of Tai Chi, and also because I just don’t think that people who are practicing Tai Chi as a martial art like the idea that its origins might lie in something that doesn’t feel very pugilistic in nature. Or maybe they just have an irrational fear of dance 🙂
Perhaps, the reason why we had a form in the first place, doesn’t really matter. The thing is, it’s here now, and it is still thought of as the defining thing that makes Tai Chi, Tai Chi. Just ask the average person “what is Tai Chi?” and they instantly think of “that thing that Chinese people do in the parks” while moving their hands in a mystical way.
As anyone who has learned a Tai Chi form knows, it’s as much a test of memory and determination as anything physical. So why is the form so long? I can only assume that the effort you have to expel to learn the form is part of the training. Also, as we’ve mentioned already, once the movements are under your belt you get the chance to practice something else with them and develop skills that can’t be practiced without them.
The reason why the art has the name “Tai Chi Chuan” is because it is a physical embodiment of the Yin/Yang symbol – as you go through the form your body goes from open to close to open to close and so on – from yang to yin, to yang to yin, and on and on. Rather than just going through the same movement sequence to practice this, knowing a form gives you the chance of practicing all sorts of variations on this open and close sequence. Perhaps, before you can really understand something, you have to know it inside and out and with all sorts of variations.
That’s what the form is for.