In Tai Chi we learn the techniques by learning them through a form. You can think of a form as a physical textbook containing a collection of techniques strung is a certain arrangement and sequence imparting lessons in coordination, timing, biomechanics, and so on. Sometimes a form can be thought of as a form of shadow boxing.
However, a common criticism of form learning is that it is unrealistic training because no one fights in exactly the way a form would lay out the sequences of techniques. A form may also breed inflexibility in moving.
2. TEXTBOOK LEARNING
Learning a form is not simply a matter of remembering the techniques in their order. Instead, form training is much more than that. If we do not go deep enough into form training then form training has little value.
A form is a reference textbook, one that we constantly review and revisit to improve our understanding of the breath and width of the lessons contained within whether obvious or hidden. We can track our learning progress by comparing our performance and understanding as time goes by.
Suffice to say your performance of a technique in Year 1 should not be the same as that in Year 10. There should be changes in how you do a movement. The changes could be cosmetic and the changes could be deep. A beginner’s rendition of the same technique as a seasoned practitioner may look the same outwardly, however, the veteran would have a certain “it” in his movements, the “it” of which is the expression of the attributes and characteristics of the style being demonstrated.
3. PERCEPTION PROBLEM
When you first see a style such as Tai Chi your perception would be that of a soft style. Is this true? What you see, what you feel in the early stages of learning and your understanding years on will be different if you train diligently.
Perception is a problem of seeing things as they are. We see a technique, we imitate it, perhaps even try it on a compliant partner and think we understand it. However, things are not always as they are. This is the problem of perception. What we think is, is not always it.
4. LONG VS SHORT
A short form is a condensed version of a long form. It meets the needs of the modern society’s time starved practitioner. The other benefit of a short form is that you can practice it a few more times in the same duration of time that you would spend going through a long form that is about 4 times the length of a short form.
For a form with complex lessons within it the 22-form is a good form to begin one’s journey in GM Wei’s Tai Chi. You could go for a longer form but struggle to go through the many more movements in a long form. Sometimes not biting off more than we can chew makes for better digestion.
5. HOW WE LEARN
Most of us learn a form by imitation, basically monkey see, monkey do even if there are verbal instructions. We struggle to see, to copy what is shown. Then we try out on our own and we struggle to remember. Our mistakes are pointed out, we try to correct them, probably correcting only some of them properly and many not, and many more not corrected.
As time goes on we remember better, we flow better and think we know what we are doing. Pass a grading test and you can move on to the next form. Many more forms learned later and we end up being a collector of forms.
We can remember the forms but we are not doing it full justice. We basically wave our hands in the air, we think they have meaning but our movements betray our mastery. We can see a disparity between our movements and our teacher’s but we accept that this is the state of affair and life goes on.
6. ONE FORM
Practicing one form can be a bore. This would be the case if you are just going through the motions. Not so if you are mentally working through the principles.
If anything the 22-form makes for stimulating practice. The form may be short but the search to reconcile knowing, understanding and mastering makes for an exciting journey through the years.
You keep working on the same one form over and over again. As you become more familiar with the movements your performance will become smoother. When you are able to successfully integrated the 13 attributes (refer to Insight 4.2 – Basics) into the form the flavor of your movements will change yet again. This is a long term learning process. You can try to rush it but some things just takes time.
7. THE DOORWAY
The successful partial infusion of the 13 attributes into your performance will bring you to the doorway of mastery. To enter it you need to integrate all the 13 attributes properly into each and every technique in the 22-form.
Once you are through the doorway you begin again, this time to go beyond your understanding of the integrated 13 attributes. At this stage you can play the same techniques differently each time, not just physically but with emphasis on different principles.
It would not be wrong for you to play the form more freely by switching and substituting a different technique in the original sequence. You could also swap around the order of the six routines of the 22-form. Consider these as lessons to check and test your understanding.
This is when you go beyond being fixed and becoming flexible. This is when a form is no longer a form, where your practice can be on doing the same technique moving along a straight line or turning to face different directions or even doing the technique in a small space.
When you reach here you can pick up the 37-form or the long form if desired. You may realize that despite the different arrangements the attributes, the characteristics, the principles, the strategies remain the same.
8. BEING FREE
The 22-form is a means to an end. Do not become obsessed with it. You put time into it for the skills that you learn and not for boasting rights.
A form not practiced properly is like a book half read or skipped through. You know some, you know so many more not.
To be free of the form make it your slave and not be its slave. The key is consistent and diligent practice to uncover its lessons and make them become part of you.