With the annual summer break coming up, now is a good time to take stock and to consider how progression is measured in tai chi.
Progress in tai chi is often and I think mistakenly measured by how many “forms”, ie sequences of moves, you have learned. Some of the classical forms are pretty long: the Chen-style First Form (Yi Lu), for example, contains 75 postures, while Yang-style long forms are even lengthier, up to 108 postures (and this is not counting all the various connecting movements). Learning and remembering a sequence like this takes quite a lot of effort and represents a considerable achievement of memorization. In some ways, that is precisely the point - your body learns to be far better co-ordinated and your body-awareness is radically improved by the challenge of moving in a wide range of unfamiliar ways and the mental stimulation provided by such a feat of memory is considerable. Furthermore, the physical effects of practising a long form are deeper and more powerful than working through a short form, even if the short form is performed several times. However, in the early stages of learning, the apparent scale of the task does pose a mental barrier for many beginners. Moreover, students find it difficult to relax - often a prime reason for wanting to learn tai chi in the first place - because of the demands of trying to learn the moves.
To tackle this, in our school we have start with a 5-movement "form" which can be performed repeatedly in a square; then we add another 5 movements which constitute a little stand-alone sequence and combine both yin (soft and slow) and yang (harder and faster) movements. We then add a middle section to this 10-movement form to make up Grandmaster Chen Zheng Lei’s full 18-movement beginner’s short form, and completing this form can be regarded as passing the first major milestone on the tai chi journey.
However, my view is that what ultimately does people good is not just learning long sequences of complicated moves (though as I say above that does have some very considerable benefits) but also what is going on inside the form - by which I mean the body-mechanics and alignments, the breathing, developing a feeling of flow and springy energy in your movements, learning to release chronic tension and stiffness while still moving, etc. To begin to do this, you do not necessarily have to learn lots of forms, you just need to know some forms really, really well so that the gross choreography stops being so much of an issue and you can focus more on the internal processes.
What is more, learning in tai chi should really be recursive - in other words, you come back to the same material again and again, learning it at more and more sophisticated levels. Otherwise, you are just learning to wave your arms about and it’s all pretty meaningless. Even a short form, then, can provide plenty of opportunities for working on the internal aspects of tai chi as you deepen your knowledge of those moves, performing them increasingly correctly and with greater and greater ease.
Andrew Howard is a Chen-style Tai Chi Instructor teaching in West Dorset, UK.