Whatever their different styles or attitudes towards the art, the majority of teachers of tai chi chuan are united in their insistence on the importance of forms practice. In the case of the Yang style it is usually referred to as THE Form, despite the existence of the A and B San Shou fast forms.
It is often said of the solo form that it contains all the secrets of the art and is like an encyclopedic reference work crammed with the wisdom of the masters. Indeed, one of the unique things about tai chi chuan, irrespective of style, is the small number of forms in the system.
The Chen style consists of two major solo forms. The Yang style has one slow form and the two solo halves of the prearranged sparring form in its empty-handed training curriculum. The old Wu style, sometimes referred to as the Hao or He style, consists of one major slow empty-hand form which is practiced in a number of different ways according to the required training emphasis. The new Wu style comprises one slow and one fast hand form. Finally, the Sun style has one empty-hand form. All of these are long versions of the form and arc not the shortened derivatives.
It is no wonder, then, that the tai chi chuan practitioner stresses the importance of the slow, solo form, because in some cases this may make up fifty per cent of the training curriculum.
Lessons of the form
Firstly, in the Yang style, the slow form serves as a focus of study, teaching the applications both in terms of techniques and of the principles on which they are based. Secondly, it teaches the tactics to be used by a student. Thirdly, through studying the form, the student learns the body mechanics of the art and, most importantly, tai chi chuan’s unique form of relaxation. The fourth lesson is of the mental attitude required if tactics and techniques are to be applied successfully. Finally, the form serves as a key to unlock the secrets of the other aspects of the training curriculum, such as pushing hands, prearranged sparring and weapons training. These areas will now be considered in more detail.
Techniques and application
The traditional Yang style form consists of a series of between 108 and 120 movements, depending upon how they are counted, and takes approximately 30 minutes (it may take less or more time than this according to the personal preference of the practitioner) to complete from start to finish. Within this form are contained the techniques of the style: kicks, punches, locks, holds and throws or evasions – in short, all the practical elements of the art as a form of unarmed combat.
If we look, for example, at the area of kicks alone, we find toe kicks, heel kicks, crescent kicks, stamps and thrusts aimed at a wide range of targets, from the ankle to the groin, and from the shin to the kidney. Punches include back-fists, abdomen and groin punches, hammer-fists. Indeed, the form is put together in such a sophisticated manner that each movement may be examined in a number of different lights.
Relaxation is of fundamental importance to the application of these techniques. It enables the practitioner to achieve maximum speed and power through efficient use of body mechanics. If the form movements are merely regarded as slowed-down external techniques and are consequently applied in a stiff, power forwarded manner, their effectiveness is almost totally lost. ‘This is why the slow form is so greatly emphasized as a training method. Tai chi chuan works from Yin to Yang, from slow to fast, from soft to hard, but practitioners must always remember that the Yin contains the Yang, and vice-versa. As well as this emphasis on relaxation, the form also teaches the principle of forward movement. Tai chi chuan is a close-quarter art and the student learns that, generally speaking, the safest place to be in a fight is as close to your opponent as possible. This is reflected in the form, as the majority of movements involve going in a forward direction. The main exception is ‘Step back repulse monkey’, although the backward movement is accompanied by a strike to the front and is, in fact, necessary to apply the technique effectively.
Another basic principle taught by the form is the correct use of the eyes which, as the classics state, should be like ‘a hawk gazing at its prey’. The novice is taught that the eyes follow the front hand. This, however, is merely a transitional training method, because the front hand is normally pointing in the direction of the opponent. One of the reasons why the hand is emphasized is that it is usually slightly below eye-level. It teaches the student not to stare directly into the opponent’s eyes, but rather to fix on a point at about chest-level. This enables the practitioner to take in the whole of his opponent’s body without the danger of being transfixed by his stare. In addition, the backward-stepping movement mentioned earlier is performed in such a way that the practitioner must have both hands in sight at all times. This has the effect of providing natural training for the peripheral vision, which is of great importance to any fighter.
Strategy and tactics
As well as teaching applications and the principles behind them, the form contains the strategy and tactics of the art. Careful study results in a student understanding not only how to use the techniques but when to do so. As mentioned previously, forward movement is a primary principle taught through the form, and it may also be regarded as one of the primary tactics.
Close examination of the solo exercise reveals the precise proportion of times the open hand is used in contrast to the fist. The majority of hand techniques arc slaps or open-handed strikes. There is sound reasoning behind this, as open-handed strikes, particularly to the targets preferred in the form, arc less likely to damage the hitter’s hand. They are also more relaxed and therefore more natural.
The use of kicks is taught through the form, too. Leg techniques are directed at low-level targets to co-ordinate with hand techniques directed at mid- or upper level target areas. Thus the opponent finds himself attacked at different levels. The use of levels and directions in tai chi chuan is of prime tactical importance. The classics point out that if a practitioner wishes to go forwards, he must first go backwards, and vice versa. If he wishes to go left, he must first go right: if right, first left. If he wishes to attack high, then he must attack low, and if low, then he should first attack high. By this means the exponent seeks to dominate his opponent not only physically but mentally as well. By always hiding his intentions, he prevents his opponent from becoming mentally or physically ‘centered’. This may clearly be seen, albeit in an exaggerated fashion, in ‘snake creeps down/golden cock stands on one leg’ postures for which the practitioner starts from high, drops low to avoid a technique, then follows a low attack to the groin area with a high attack to the throat or face. In practical terms, going back to go forwards means leading your opponent into a disadvantageous position before countering.
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