Being a student and teacher of Tai Chi I have found that there are rhythms to Tai Chi. First, is the normal way of doing Tai Chi, not to fast not too slow, a steady natural flow of movements leading one posture into another like a dance. Secondly, is the little slower version which is more like a Qigong exercise. And the third is fast Tai Chi which is doing the form in a fast pace more dynamic energy. To practice all three speeds are important to fully understand Tai Chi and to round out one’s understanding.
Speed Junkies Phase I
When it comes to learning Tai Chi everyone starts out being way too fast, not only in doing the form, but also in wanting to learn the form. I guess its part of our culture to want to learn and do everything fast, let’s face it, we live in world where fast is the standard on how good something is. Our culture seems to be locked on high speed and everyone knows that they should slow down but few can, going slow is not so easy and very hard to do. Too often we are in hurry to get results.
The first question that new students always ask is “how long will it take me to learn Tai Chi”? The answer is it takes a life time. I can teach you one form in 12 weeks, I can take a year or more to teach you another. This is when their eyes glaze over and confusion comes to their faces, I just tell them to come to class.
This is also why I often find it amazing when I met people that express to me that they studied Tai Chi and didn’t get anything out of it, when I press them for how long they study they tell me “for a few months”. I try to tell them Tai Chi is like water and you are like rough jagged rock, it will take sometime to wear that rock down to be smooth and polished.
Slowing Down Phase II
I believe the most important phase in Tai Chi is what I call the phase II in which students practice Tai Chi in the slowest possible way. In this phase one does Tai Chi as slow as possible, moving as little as possible and feeling each and every motion. Spending time to concentrate on each movement of one’s body and settles into each form of Tai Chi, so we start just moving our arms up and down very, very, slowly. Transitioning from form to form, moving as slowly as possible feeling each step, starting from the feet feeling each step to the calf, knee, hip, chest, shoulders, elbows, writs, hands, neck, jaw, face, eyes, top of head. This process can take up to 2-5 minutes just to do one section like “grasping the sparrow’s tail” (peng lu ghi an). Moving this slowly students can feel the form and relax into it. This also allows students to find the places where they hold there stress and let it go.
This allows them to immerse themselves into “grasping the sparrow’s tail” and become one with that form. As one moves slowly from one section to the next we natural sink more, breath deeper and relax. One also stops thinking of the next steps and puts all one’s focus on the form they are doing at that very moment, this allows the mind to become calm. When doing Tai Chi this slow it can take a good 20 to 30 minutes just to do the short form. But, you will find your Tai Chi change very quickly and have a deeper respect for the form.
Phase II becomes more like Qigong and moves one into the part of Tai Chi that is a moving meditation. While doing Tai Chi this slowly your form with change and you will experience a new level of awareness. Your senses and awareness become more acute and you see things in a different light. Your reflexes become shaper and your awareness become shaper. I have had students tell me when a something is falling like a cup or dish, all of sudden it seems that it’s moving in slow motion and they are able to catch it before it falls to the floor. Once you have practice this way of doing Tai Chi than you can go back to doing it in its normal pace.
Speeding Up Phase III
Life doesn’t always come at us slowly sometimes we need to react quickly and doing Tai Chi fast allows us to be ready for those situations. Whether it’s stepping out of the way, yielding, or expanding forward, Tai Chi will help us respond to any situation when we need to move quickly. And when we do Tai Chi fast it looks like a dance where one is turning, spinning and moving in a very fluid way.
To help understand this, just think of doing Tai Chi as a martial application fighting several people. Using the form to move quickly from one situation to the next. Using all the different postures to kick, turn, sink down, punch, strike as if we needed to use them to defend ourselves. We would never just move slowly if we were being attacked. It helps us understand what the moves are for and how to use them in dynamic way. Just as we need to learn how to move quickly in push hands, we should also practice Tai Chi fast so we can understand alternative applications of the practice.
When we combine these three dimensions of Tai Chi we deepen our knowledge and understanding of internal energy, we take it deeper and find new levels to explore which grounds us in our form and at the same time expands our experience of this special and unique practice. It takes a lifetime to be smooth and polished, don’t rush it.