I have on numerous occasions been asked by students of Tai Chi, some my own students and others not, my opinion on the requirements of good hand form practice. I have pondered on this question for quite some time and if truth be told, in my humble opinion, there is no single or simple answer to this question. The primary responsibility lies with the students themselves. They have a responsibility of total trust and confidence in the instructions given by their teacher; this is particularly true as the student begins to develop a more profound understanding of their art. It is sometimes at this point that students can begin to challenge the instructions given. As their development in the art begins to mature, and the ability to perform reasonable and adequate form plus the praises which are sometimes given by classmates and friends, the ego starts to rear its ugly head, the consequence of which is that some succumb and do begin to believe that they know better than the teacher. This act only helps to blight their progress, a fact to which they are often blind. If for whatever reason the student is unable to give total trust to the teachings of his teacher he then needs to have the courage of his convictions and find another teacher in whom he is able do so.
With the advent of multi styles seminars/workshops and camps where students are exposed to a plethora of different ideas, I have often witnessed changes being made to their own form to accommodate new information acquired from these seminars, workshops or camps. Don't get me wrong, I am not at all deriding these events, how can I, after all I've participated in several of these events as a teacher myself. Learning self defence and push hands techniques from outside your own system I think is fine, but form (hand) must never be. I say this as there is very often a huge difference in the manner in which forms are performed from style to style. I see form as the intrinsic language and soul of a system, this is my opinion. "Silently memorise, study and imitate... give up yourself to follow the opponent" is a quote from the Tai Chi Chuan canon. Students of Tai Chi need to ponder this quote thoroughly. This is especially true in the early stages of learning. We need to memorise and study form movements and techniques to the point where they can be performed effortlessly. We need to study and imitate the teacher's form until such time that our comprehension of form is such that it may become personalised. Besides the teacher, students need to pay particular attention to form play of more senior colleagues as the more information we are able to draw upon the richer will be our all-round understanding. Probably one of the single most important component for good form practice is undoubtedly a good teacher. A good teacher will be able to point out faults and communicate correct principles which may not be immediately apparent to the student. Having said that, the teacher has the responsibility not to be self-indulgent. For example, when leading a class through form practice, a constant standard must be maintained without inclusions of personal variations which can only serve to confuse.
To aid the judging of the different styles of forms at his British Tai Chi Competition and also used at the Dutch Open and European Tai Chi Championship, my teacher, Dan Docherty, set down ten criteria by which a fair and unbiased appraisal of the often very different forms. I titled these the Ten Essentials for correct form practice. Here they are set out along with my own personal interpretation.
|1. Correctness of Posture||1. Awareness of spinal alignment.|
|2. Correctness of Stance||2. Awareness of posture. Feet position. Substantiality & Insubstantiality of the legs.|
|3. Distinguishing Yin and Yang.||3. Awareness of complimentary aspects of opposites i.e. in front stance, front leg bent and back leg straight and the reverse in back stance.|
|4. Softness and Relaxation.||4. Abstention from the deliberate use of muscular force.|
|5. Co-ordinated Movements.||5. All movements are inextricably linked.|
|6. Balanced stepping and turning.||6. Movements must not be strained. Stances not too long or too wide.|
|7. Smooth transmission from one technique to another.||7. There must be no noticeable completion of technique from one to another.|
|8. Intent and Focus.||8. This is manifest in attitude and where the technique is actually leading to.|
|9. Aesthetic appearance.||9. Movements must be pleasing to the eye.|
|10. Martial spirit.||10. This is manifest in the eyes, one pointedness.|
The ten points are very much interrelated. If posture isn't correct then aesthetic appearance, balanced movement, relaxation, yin & yang are affected. If stance is faulty it affects posture, smooth transition, etc. If proper measure of yin & yang isn't addressed, all else will be affected. If no intent and focus is evident then martial spirit is difficult to display.
The student must maintain the highest level of personal discipline. Mental strength is an absolute requirement as without this they will inevitably stumble at the first difficult hurdle. Ask questions, yes please do. I can't fathom why students are often so reluctant to ask questions of their teachers when a problem develops in a particular aspect of their training. Often they appear more willing to enquire of their fellow classmates than levelling their questions at the teacher, the blind leading the blind springs to mind. Questions need to be asked of the teacher as this is the surest way that one can hope to receive the most accurate answers. For the student, it can help to guard against possible years of bad practice because of incorrect information. For the teacher, it can help to keep them informatively sharp and can also aid in preventing complacency and loss of theoretical nous.
Undoubtedly, the best method in which to improve one's form is through the actual physical practice of form. Students need also to read as much as possible on the art of Tai Chi Chuan, its theory and practice. The student need to be discriminating as there is a vast body of work written on Tai Chi Chuan which varies greatly in quality. The downside here for the student is that if their ability and understanding is not of above average level in Tai Chi practice their ability to discriminate will be lacking.
The ability and the discipline to self practise is another invaluable and much needed component in the student's armoury. As important as it undoubtedly is to follow the teacher and others, I have noticed that in so doing, some students simply follow like sheep and absorb very little if any information at all. Self practice on the other hand allows the student the necessary time to be much more introspective. The requirements of Rooting, Posture, Focus, Intent, Coordination, Relaxation, etc can be addressed without any observational or critical pressure from the teacher or others. I personally found the time spent self practising was undoubtedly when I made huge discoveries in my comprehension of form and function. This invariably had a profoundly beneficial effect on other aspects of my Tai Chi Chuan practice.
A major handicap to some students' progress regarding form practice led by the teacher is often that students: do not look; when looking they do not see; and if seeing they do not act upon what they see.
Once a student always a student. Even when we progress to become teachers the learning does not cease. Success in Tai Chi is the return one gets for investing in hard work. This was said to me many years ago by my teacher.
The road is long. Enjoy the journey.