In the practice of the tai chi chuan hand form, there are those who profess themselves to be tai chi purist insisting that the hand form must be performed at all times at the slowest speed possible. They claim that it is only as a result of performing the hand form in this ultra slow manner that one can derive the requisite meditative and therapeutic benefits of the form. Although I can see some logic in their point of view and do to a greater part agree with it, I cannot truthfully say that I am in total and unreserved agreement with their thinking. As many tai chi chuan practitioners are I am sure aware, the tai chi chuan hand form has been described also as the long river, in as much as it appears to go on and on.
Let us now take a look into why the form has been described as such. A river can at times be flowing quite smoothly and calm. At other times it can be flowing quite rapidly. There are times when it is but a mere treacle along its bed and at other times a violent rapid. The flow of a river is very much dependent on the terrain through which it is running. If the river is flowing through a very rocky terrain or a terrain which is predominately sloping downwards, it will have an obvious effect on the velocity and flow of said river thereby causing the river to flow quite fast and violently. The reverse would be true if the terrain was flat with no obstacles apart from reeds growing along its bed. Similarly, as the terrain can affect the flow of a river, so it is that the level of difficulty of technique in the tai chi hand form can affect the flow and fluidity of the movements. Taking a comparative example from the style of tai chi chuan that I practise, the movement of single and double hand sweep lotus leg isn’t going to be performed as smoothly and co-ordinately as brush knee twist step or step back to repulse monkey. However, I do agree that to get the maximum benefit and understanding of all that the hand form has to offer, then we must practise the form as slowly as the movements allow us to. It is only by the slow, soft, relaxed, balanced, coordinated and mindful awareness of certain principles such as: distinguishing yin and yang, balanced stepping and turning, smooth transmission from one technique to another, intent and focus, martial spirit, awareness of posture and stance and aesthetic movements, that we can truly hope to aspire to realising our potential in the practice of tai chi chuan.
One of the greatest obstacles to achieving proficiency in hand form practice is the constant impulse to rush through its practice. Here is an analogy that I often present to my students. I would ask that they imagine themselves travelling in a vehicle along a narrow country lane at a speed of around thirty-five miles an hour. The lane is bordered on either side by high and thick hedge rows. Whilst travelling, looking out through the window, one notices that the hedge rows are just a blurry mass. Now rewind, the conditions are the same but the only difference is now instead of thirty-five miles an hour the vehicle is travelling at a speed of twenty miles an hour. Looking out through the window you now notice huge gaps in the hedge rows and through these gaps you now also notice that there are cattle and sheep and horses in the field beyond. I mention this because when we rush through the practice of the hand form, so much is missed regarding what we ought to be experiencing during this process, there is an almost complete disconnect, a lack of internalisation, no unity of mind and body, we are not in the moment, ultimately, we become lost in a fog of our own doing. Often, I would suggest to my students that for every ten times of form practice they should do the form super slowly at least five to six times, three times moderately and at least once super-fast. The reason for my suggesting such extreme changes of speed is simply to allow the students to see if they are able to maintain their poise, their coordination and structure equally as well whether the form is being done slowly or quickly.
I have noticed over recent years an increase in tai chi practitioners putting far more emphasis on the martial aspect of their training to the detriment of the hand form. The martial aspect of tai chi is indeed an important one, after all, tai chi is a martial art and so this has to be reflected in its practice. Grand master Cheng quoted that “If the hand form is skilful then nothing will go wrong”. I whole heartedly agree with his quote. A sound knowledge and understanding of form, I believe, will greatly enhance a fighter’s martial prowess far beyond the ordinary. Form practice gives the fighter a better understanding of timing, economy of movement, precision in the execution of techniques and a sharpness of defensive and offensive techniques when engaged in combat. One can practise martial techniques predominantly all one’s life, but eventually the effectiveness of such practice will wane as one approaches a certain stage of life. It’s quite obvious that as we age, we do begin to lose physical power, speed and the ability to respond spontaneously to attacks. Contrary to the physical demands required in the execution of martial techniques, the hand form has no such requirement. I most certainly agree that the hand form should be performed slowly but allowances need to be made for physically demanding postures and movements. During the practice of the hand form the student must be mindful of the fact that the movements are mostly all initiated and controlled by the waist. There are occasions when the foot and leg will be the initiator. Movements are never initiated by the hands. A common error committed by beginners, and it has to be said also by some more experienced practitioners, is to lead with the arms and hands. The hands may very well be the instrument through which most offensive and defensive moves are conducted but they do not however make independent decisions. “The root is in the feet, discharging is done by the legs, the controlling power is in the waist and the appearance is in the hands and fingers” a quote from the Tai chi chuan discourse. The tai chi practitioner when practising forms must be mindful of the correct execution of techniques. This execution must consist of soft slow and coordinated movements. They must sink deeply in order to create a strong root prior to discharging one’s jin. Pushing off and up the rear foot directing the force upwards to the waist. The waist unwinds creating a spiralling upward flow of energy into the arms and hands and finally into the intended target. The slow practice of the hand form has a beneficial effect on all the internal organs of the body as a result of the gentle massage that they receive from the continuous twisting of the body during the execution of the various movements which make up the form. The muscles, tendons and ligaments are also benefiting from the deep sinking and bending of the legs and the extension of the limbs either in the pushing or rising movements. The heart being a muscle is benefitting by not being called upon to cope with the excessive demands put on it by overly physical activities. Not only is the blood flow from the heart better able to flow unhindered by unnecessary muscular contractions when we’re engaged in physical pursuits but the sinking action of the legs aids in passage of the deoxygenated blood flow back to the lungs where it will be reoxygenated and transported to the heart in order to repeat its cycle. In order to gain mastery of the hand form, the tai chi practitioner needs to be in possession of, I believe, two states of awareness: 1. Internal awareness; and 2. External awareness. Internal awareness is where we are at all times during our practice conscious of all that is happening within. In this state, we have to see and feel all that is happening within our being from the bending of the knees enabling us to establish a strong root, the twisting of the waist, the extension of the legs, arms and body, and the entire workings of the support workers, namely the muscles, tendons, ligaments and all which cannot be seen externally while performing the hand form. External awareness is where one is visually conscious of the movements of the hands and feet and all else which can be seen with the eyes. Finally, it is important that one pays particular attention to the teacher when he or she is practising form, in this way, the student will be better able to identify errors in their own practice and set about correcting them. Failure to do this may very well result in a lifetime of bad practice.
12th February 2023