In Taiji circles, people
get very hung up on shapes and up to a point they are correct
to do so. After all, the notable postures in your forms,
whether practiced as linked form sequences or as isolated
techniques are shaped the way they are for a reason, right?
There are optimum alignments and physical qualities that
should be maintained in order to ensure that your postures
are strong, grounded and balanced and this will help your
movements to be powerful.
your weight falling through the centre of your foot arch?
Are the arches arched? Are your knees in line with your
toes? Is your weight on the correct leg? Has your posture
collapsed, or have you remembered to maintain a sense of
peng expansiveness in your elbows? etc. etc.
Unfortunately, that is not the kind of thing I'm talking about. I'm talking about the students who come through my door with the dreaded "previous experience of Taiji." I always groan inwardly because it almost invariably means that they will have been shown some great long form sequence without any information given regarding its martial purpose.
Such students frequently take longer to learn what I'm teaching them than my brand new students. Their Taiji life might previously have consisted of studying photos of Yang Chengfu or Zheng Manqing in order to ascertain the correct posture with little or no concern about how the limbs arrive in their finished places, let alone why.
If they are particularly lucky, their previous teacher may have filled their heads with reasoning such as "the posture is this shape so that your conception vessel meridians are connected with your ren and du channels which improves the flow of qi and if you don't do it exactly like that your arms and legs will drop off". Pity the poor creatures who don't do Taiji, walking around completely oblivious to the fact that they could drop down dead at any moment because their Kidney 10 has strayed out of alignment with their Spleen 7. "Put down that sandwich! Where is your energy coming from?!!!" No one seems to worry about the fact that they have survived OK so far without knowing such eldritch secrets.
Such knowledge of "the correct postures" generally impedes their movements as they try to move from one static shape to the next in a nice floaty way. And if I tell them to get their feet parallel, the databank inside their heads will remind them that Yang Chengfu didn't have his feet parallel in the photos so maybe they won't bother and maybe I won't notice and anyway who am I to tell them how to have their feet? and their body isn't designed to make that shape because they were born with turned out toes and maybe they'll settle for a compromise for now to shut me up and practice it properly when they get home.
You see, it isn't that I'm completely unconcerned with shape, but the shapes I teach are determined by tried and tested martial function rather than by any specific tradition. Zheng style, Yang style, Chen style, Wu style, Sun style - I've tried them all and the shapes I teach are the shapes that I find most effective for combat. It's not like I haven't investigated the art thoroughly and tried the techniques out on a variety of body shapes, ages, genders and abilities. Ask me "why?" and I'll always give you a reason. I may have arrived at different conclusions than some other teachers, but as long as they know why they're doing things the way they are too (from a martial perspective, mind you), I'm happy to embrace a little diversity. You can always train with them instead - I'll give you their number.
And there is some room for maneuvering. I had one student who had lost virtually all of the sensation in his legs, so I showed him how to practice the techniques and forms with Sun style follow steps because he could do those. He'd been able to stand in some of the Zheng / Yang style shapes, but he'd never have been able to use them martially. Sun style stepping enabled him to throw some of our biggest and strongest students across the room. But rather than forcing him to learn a separate "official Sun style routine", I taught him the same applications as the rest of us and in the same order and as far as I know, nothing dropped off.
I taught another guy in a wheelchair. I didn't insist on him bringing his feet parallel either.
Far more important than specific traditional linked form sequences, I teach Taiji fighting techniques. Within that framework I teach students to let their postures and movements be shaped according to 3 very important criteria, namely purpose, quality and direction.
The most crucial element of all. What is your arm meant to be doing? Forget the stuff you might have been told about it being better not to know otherwise you'll use "strength instead of qi" or something, trust me, it is far far better that you do know, especially if Taiji is your first martlal art. The secret to "not using isolated muscle force" does not lie in remaining ignorant of function, but in knowing not to do it and to work on not doing it. Just be aware that knowledge of what is required is not enough - expect to have to work hard to make your body function differently from the ways you are used to. When you are punching the heavy bags at the gym you have a choice, you can either be prepared to get worse before you get better as you re-learn how to use your body (investing in loss) or you can decide that you really don't care all that much about movement quality, in which case Taiji is not the art for you.
Each Taiji movement is a martial technique. Sure, there might be a number of martial options for any given shape, but there will be an essential martial idea behind each one. If you can't find a teacher who can show you, the clue may lie in the name of the movement, especially once you have developed an understanding of martial imagery and terminology. Here's a tip - if another Kung Fu style (one that hasn't strayed as far from its martial origins) has a technique with the same name, check out what they use it for. Quite a few Taiji techniques can also be found in Xingyi and often use the same animal symbolism. Go back far enough and many systems have common roots.
If you think the technique may be in breach of some essential Taiji rule, adapt it - be prepared to have your weight on the other leg, for example. (If you research long and hard enough, you'll probably find someone else somewhere who practices it in a way that fits your understanding, so if you're pretty sure you know what you are doing, don't wait until then).
Knowledge of function will only improve your performance and a broader knowledge will only deepen your understanding.
Are you reeling silk? I mean really - do any of your rotations cease or suddenly speed up or slow down? Remember that the whole point of reeling silk is that all of your movements must rotate steadily and constantly. Moving your arm and then rotating it, or rotating it and then thrusting it out is not good enough. Remember that "if you do not know spiral force you do not know Taijiquan" and "all movements inwards or outwards reel silk" (Chen Xin).
Is your power being driven upwards from the ground and out to your extremities or are your arms leading, with your body being dragged along behind? Is isolated muscular contraction or a tense shoulder slowing your strikes down?
Furthermore, are you executing a throw or a strike? I mean at this specific moment in time. What are you using this "White Crane" for, right here, right now? You will need to perform the movement a little differently as appropriate for the specific application you have in mind, so don't just "wing it". Strikes might emphasise a whippier, more segmented kind of movement quality with a more obviously sequential flow of strength whereas a throw might require all of the separate parts of your body to move together. The same movement sequence will occur, but the timing may be condensed or drawn out.
Now here's a controversial statement - don't go by what other people look like when they are doing the movements, go by how the movement feels in your body. Some experts have managed to express certain essential movement qualities very subtly and this might not be easy to discern with the naked eye. It is certainly a myth that "the less that is happening on the outside the more that is occurring inside." This is not necessarily true - sometimes movements might just be empty. Don't kid yourself that "less is more" out of a desire to emulate someone famous.
Knowledge of the eight methods are invaluable here. Within a circular movement you can bring out any section of that circle to be a deflection; a strike; a throw; a sweep; a joint lock... Techniques can have drastically different effects with a change of intention - your shape might not alter all that much, but what happens to your opponent could change a lot. For example, when you raise and extend an arm to connect with an oncoming strike (peng) and then slide it on through to hit the attacker's head, it might flow into a forwards strike (ji) a sideways strike (lie) or a downwards strike (an). As I say, the effect will alter more than the shape.
Having a clear understanding of the martial purpose of your movements will enable you to be mindful in your practice. As a very martial instructor I have been accused of being only interested in the physical aspects of Taijiquan and nothing could be further from the truth. I have had accusatory comments from telephone enquirers "You mean you only do fighting techniques?! I was hoping to go on to the sword!!!" Doesn't anyone else care about anything other than linked forms and don't they realise how superficial and purely physical their practice is going to be if all they think about is shapes and localised qi sensations?
Martial purpose allows you to be present and mindful in your practice, rather than trying to imitate a bunch of still photos. Form practice should bristle with martial intention. Your xin (martial spirit) should drive your yi (intention). This can then direct all of your energy (qi) to fire your muscles (li) in the correct sequential order to power your techniques. You should only move as slowly as you can without losing all sense of momentum and only move as fast as you can without loss of quality.
When the shapes you make in your practice contain the essential movement qualities and alignment principles of Taijiquan; when every movement has a clear sense of direction; when both of these aspects are driven by an understanding of martial purpose - then you can be said to be doing Taijiquan. Anything else is just shapes.