Key Principles of Forms Practice

Xu Zhi Yi [Translated by Doug Woolidge]

Tai Chi Magazine

Translator’s Note: This is the fifth chapter of Xu Zhi Yi’s book, Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan, originally published in 1958. This chapter outlines Xu’s conception of the three developmental stages of learning T’ai Chi Ch’uan. As the student progresses from stage to stage, there is a gradual shift from external to internal focus.

Doug Woolidge teaches Chinese language in Nanaimo, BC, Canada, and is a Wu style practitioner.

Principles to Observe When Doing the Forms

The forms that comprise the set are usually called the frames. Regardless of the style, there will be differences in the “formal” and “spiritual” aspects of advanced practitioners, even if they share the same teacher. This is similar to calligraphy: beginners must assiduously focus on a given character’s shape.

After establishing a foundation in shaping the character, the student begins to develop the character’s spiritual aspects in ways that reflect his interests and experience. After a while, the calligraphy naturally changes. This is also true for T’ai Chi Ch’uan.

The frames may differ between people depending on their relative physical constitution and the extent of their desire to learn. Any frame can be formed in a large, medium or small scale. Small frames can be enlarged and vice versa.

The “Explanation of the Thirteen Forms” states: “First seek openness and extension, later seek compaction.” A frame’s size determines the degree of movement: larger frames incorporate more movement than smaller frames. People who are physically weak should not necessarily first seek openness and extension, and later seek compaction. New students should train according to their capacity: do not overdo it.

T’ai Chi Ch’uan’s effectiveness as a method of combat and its effectiveness as a health activity both result from common training methods. Promoting the martial aspects does not diminish the health-enhancing properties of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. Similarly, one who solely concentrates on the health aspects of T’ai Chi Ch’uan will gradually improve a foundation in combat. However, without studying combat methodology, there will be no way to apply such a foundation. Based on the author’s experience, the three stages of doing the form will be outlined below.

The First Stage

Whether they have studied other martial arts or not, new students should not try to absorb and apply all the essential features of T’ai Chi Ch’uan to the moves of the set. Doing so would result in little gain because the student would necessarily ignore one feature while focusing on the other. Students in the beginning stages of learning the principles should focus only on the four features outlined here


1. Lightness

The Classics state: “With even the slightest movement the entire body must be light and agile:” This applies to those who are already experienced at training in T’ai Chi Ch’uan. New students should focus on lightness and not be too eager to develop agility. In my experience people who have already studied other martial arts may be quite agile, but they are likely to use excessive force: they have plenty of agility, but not enough lightness.

Those who are new to athletics also usually find it easier to learn agility than lightness. As a beginning student I thought, “To box, a person needs to use strength:” Only later, when I understood the features of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, did I pay proper attention to lightness.

T’ai Chi Ch’uan’s training methodology primarily develops acumen of the senses rather than physical agility based on movement alone. The former uses little strength; the latter uses much strength. Being too forceful reduces sensitivity, so beginners should minimize force and direct their efforts towards lightness. Only later should they train agility. The acute sensitivity alluded to in the saying, “A feather cannot be added, a fly cannot alight [without a change in equilibrium]” is not attained solely through lightness, but lightness is the first step.

Remember that training the movements to be light is essential for establishing a foundation for later skills (do not treat the foundation as an end in itself). Consequently, less attention is diverted towards matters of lightness/heaviness and the person moves with greater spontaneity. As well, the person is less likely to move rashly when training the skills of sinking.

2. Slowness:

Everyone knows that T’ai Chi Ch’uan movements are slow. But is slower necessarily better? The Classics state: “With even the slightest movement the entire body must be light and agile:” They also state: “React quickly to quick movement, slowly follow slow movement.” Clearly, T’ai Chi Ch’uan is not limited to slow movement.

The “Explanation of the Thirteen Forms” states: “If the spirit can be raised, there will be no fears of clumsiness. Intention and qi must be deftly exchanged, then one can have the pleasure of animated circular [movement]:” This also illustrates how T’ai Chi Ch’uan stresses agility and opposes clumsiness.

The latter section of the “Explanation of the Thirteen Forms” states: “Sending jin is like drawing out filaments of silk.” This emphasizes the importance of slowness. It originally meant that applied jin was to be continuous and unbroken, as if drawing out strands of silk floss. Do not use broken jin: it is brittle and fast.

Training slowness has the following three benefits. It is more suitable for those with weak constitutions. It reduces careless movements, which would affect the postures. And developing a habit of slow movement eventually results in increased agility.

Clearly, lightness and slowness are the foundation upon which further skills are based. More advanced practitioners specifically train the skills of seeing stillness in movement. Their movements develop from being agile into being simple and unaffected. Individual speeds also differ, depending on differences in disposition. Because intention is focused on achieving stillness,. not slowness, the lowness of such people is different than that sought by beginners.

3. Circularity:

In T’ai Chi Ch’uan, every movement describes an arc; movements are not linear. This is just as true for advanced practitioners as for beginners. Beginners should have extended and expansive postures with large arcs. Eventually, after developing greater skills, the postures become more compact and the arcs correspondingly shrink.

However, when going through the set, even the smallest movement should definitely describe an arc. These days some teachers break each form into its constituent parts for the ease of beginner students. This can result in moves in which no arcs are discernible. Remember, this is only a teaching method; the moves of T’ai Chi Ch’uan must still be circular.

After learning the set this way, all the separated movements should be joined together, forming arc-like movement so that there is no trace of a gap between moves. Only then has the practitioner achieved the first stage. It is relatively easy to move in circles, but to do so naturally and evenly is difficult.

Because circular movement is closely related to moving the entire body as a unit, this level cannot be reached quickly. Students should begin by developing the habit of moving the hands in arcs. Later, when the entire body’s movement matches this circularity; circular movement will become. naturally correct.

4. Evenness:

Of the points described above, lightness relates to the force of movement, slowness relates to the speed of movement, and circularity relates to the course of movement. This fourth section concerns the degree of evenness of movement.

When the arm extends, for example, whether the speed is fast or slow, it should employ “movement of equal speed” throughout. When normally extending the hand, the course of movement is so short that one only needs to consider the beginning and end points, without regard to “movement of equal speed:” But T’ai Chi Ch’uan involves slow movement: beginners must pay special attention.

It is very easy to develop the problem of unevenness of speed, either between individual forms or throughout the entire set. As has been stated before, when training T’ai Chi Ch’uan, movement should be consciously orchestrated.

This principle is usually difficult to grasp, so beginners should focus on evenness. Simply put, the way to train evenness is to consider every movement as a series of points connected together (as an empty line), not merely the beginning and the endpoints of a line. In this way, one’s movements will invisibly imply that as movement proceeds, one is touching a series of points.

After a long period of training, habits will develop whereby the hands will naturally move with appropriate evenness at any speed. Of course, advanced practitioners must pay attention to transforming between empty and full. Without maintaining constant speed, one goes against the saying: “Sending jin is as if drawing out strands of silk.” In such cases, movement may tend towards floating or slipperiness.

The four above-mentioned sections are all concerned with establishing a foundation in T’ai chi Ch’uan. Because each person’s specific situation differs, these sections may be studied separately; they need not all be put into effect simultaneously. However, they all must be apprehended before moving into stage two. Better gains are made if the student learns step by step.

The Second Stage

The former section considered four points that should be considered throughout each move: lightness, slowness, circularity and evenness. In terms of the frames, these are only preparatory skills. In the author’s experience, the better these skills are trained, the more one’s moves will appear reserved. This is inevitable for those in the first stage.

Don’t be too concerned that the forms seem too rigid at this point; the second stage advances the objectives of training, focusing on different criteria. The first stage, for example, required that movements be “correct:” The second stage requires that movement be “fluent.”

Remember that adding fluency to a correct foundation does not preclude any of the rules mentioned earlier. However, training. fluency of movement before learning correct movement results in half the gain for twice the effort. The four points of Stage Two are presented below:

1. Agility:

T’ai Chi Ch’uan is based on slow movement; the agility required of it involves an emphasis on being implicit. Do not overtrain agility to the point that it becomes overt. Learn to discriminate between agility and sensitivity. To this end, students should remember the following:

  1. If they have trained their form to be open and extended, they should consider compacting it.
  2. In terms of relative speed, there is no need to be very concerned about achieving slowness. Hand movements should become more spontaneous or even slightly faster.
  3. The waist distributes movement to the four limbs. (The Classics refer to this as “Waist is the master.” In other words, arm and leg movements are led by the waist. This is very important.

A student’s movements will become naturally harmoniously proportioned if he trains according to the above three points, without contradicting the features mentioned earlier.

2. Purification of Relaxation:

This simply means that every location on the entire body is relaxed and not tied up at all. Of course, this has a close relationship with lightness and agility. Some students emphasize relaxation from the very beginning. Though this is not wrong, to seek purification of relaxation merely in order to attain lightness and agility is to underestimate its effects.

Moreover, when beginners focus too strongly on relaxation, their relative slowness can result in floating or slipping. It is better for beginners to follow the prescribed sequence. In the initial stage of learning T’ai Chi Ch’uan, it is often the case that the more one thinks of not using force, the stiffer the legs and arms become. This is not natural; it is a matter of tenseness of mood.

As long as the mood is not tense, one’s muscles can spontaneously relax. The “Explanation of the Thirteen Forms” points out this causal relationship with the terms “spirit extends” and “body is still:” After one’s mood orients to nature, not only the waist but also the entire body should be relaxed so that every location moves proportionally with the others without becoming tied up.

Keep in mind that the movements of T’ai Chi Ch’uan are not limited to lightness and agility. Only by entering the following stage — sinking — can one improve the skills of sinking qi to the dantian throughout all applications. Sinking does not mean to add force to , movements; sinking is actually attained through relaxation. Some say that in order to achieve pure relaxation of the entire body the abdomen must not be tense. This is appropriate for sinking qi to the dantian. The Classics also mention that “Qi should be drum-resonated.” Clearly, during movement the abdomen is sometimes relaxed, sometimes tightened, not simply one or the other.

3. Entirety:

This refers to attaining complete unity in a movement’s form or shape. It does not refer to the inner distribution of consciousness and breath, which will be discussed in the third stage. In the beginning stage the focus is primarily on moving slowly. But over-emphasizing slowness can prevent one from moving as an entire unit. There are people with years of training who still have discrepancies of speed between hand and foot movement. When, for example, the foot has already landed but the hand is still slowly moving, this is obviously a case of too much slowness and not enough integration of unity. Remember the verse: “In movement everything moves, in stillness everything is still.” At this stage, students should be concerned with synchronizing hand and foot movements.

4. Interconnectedness:

In order to attain interconnectedness, beginning students should remember not to change the speed of movement. Interconnectedness is most related to circularity. If speed is not regulated, it is difficult to avoid the problem of becoming overly circular and influencing the execution and results of the other main points.

The Third Stage

The previous stage was primarily concerned with developing a complete and solid foundation. According to the sequence of skills outlined in the. Classics, it was the stage when, “Through familiarity one gradually begins to understand jin.” The third stage is the final stage. The points below are necessary guidelines for reaching the level described as, “From an understanding of jin one approaches illumination.”

Master Wu Chien Chuan once stated: “To approach illumination after understanding jin does not totally depend on push hands; one must also constantly cultivate advanced skills from doing the form:’ In the highest level of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, health and martial aspects can be viewed separately or together as a single entity; they share the same logic. The following four points outline the objectives of Stage Three.

1. Differentiate Between Void and Solid:

The previous two stages emphasized that movements are slow and even. Even though in the second stage movement could be more lively, in order to establish a good foundation, movement was more measured than spontaneous. Now that the foundation is already established, other training methods can be adopted.

The objective of this stage is to rid oneself of complicated notions and replace them with simple notions. Differentiating between solid and void is aimed toward this goal. Consequently, the student should disregard all the points mentioned in the previous stage (this means to not be preoccupied with them; it does not mean to change them).

Focus on separating between void and solid in movement. Void and solid are first apprehended through focusing on the hands; when the hand extends from starting point to end it should be seen as “going from void to solid:” During this time, the palm gradually changes from latency to extension. At the final point [imagine that] the palm slightly convexes, expressing extreme solidness (known as extreme yang).

Contraction of the hand is understood as going from solid to void (known as extreme yang produces yin). At this time, the palm gradually changes from extension to latency. Movements forming a fist also involve gradually changing from relaxed to taut when extending the fist. When pulling back the fist, there is a gradual change from taut to relaxed. This does not mean that one is singly relaxed and not taut (excluding those who train void-stillness), or singly taut and not relaxed.

Secondly, the body, waist, and legs must evenly match the relative voidness and solidness of the hands. For example, enveloping the chest always gradually increases as the hands are withdrawn. And when stepping, the heel makes first contact with the floor; as the hand reaches full extension the foot gently treads solidly. The feet correspond to the hands’ relative voidness/solidness. This will be explained in further detail in the following section.

2. Regulating the Breath:

In a combat context, T’ai Chi Ch’uan stresses neutralization; the opponent is not defeated through force. Consequently, training is based on nurturing qi. So-called sinking the qi to the dantian naturally occurs through moving in a relaxed light and harmonious way. Even though the previous two sections did not discuss T’ai Chi Ch’uan breathing methods, simply because the movements are slow and even, the person’s breathing will not be shallow or short.

It is not difficult to gradually develop the habit of deep, even breathing. Relaxed and even breathing is not only related to regulating and nurturing qi, but also helps to “calm the spirit and unify the will.” Long and deep breaths not only enhance the effects of “exhaling the old and inhaling the new” but also have a beneficial role in promoting the blood circulation and functions of the inner organs.

In speaking of “regulating the breath,” we do not merely refer to breathing in a naturally deep and even way. Only when movement influences breath to the extent that breathing itself becomes a type of movement can one reap the most comprehensive health benefits from movement.

When doing the form there are large and small movements, and as we know, breathing should be deep and even. Some people say that every movement must closely match every breath. This is both unnecessary and impossible. Strive to coordinate a given movement’s alternations between full and empty with the natural circulation of breath throughout every movement.

In other words, we should try to do the following: When the hand’s movement changes from empty to full, exhalation should match it in intention and speed. When the hand reaches final extension and [we conceptualize that] the palm extends outward slightly, there is sufficient exhalation, and at the same time there is a slight tension in the belly below the waist. Conversely, when the hand’s movement changes from full to empty, the breath should again match it in intention and speed.

When the movement ends, just at the moment that breath is sufficiently inhaled, the belly above the navel should slightly contract. The, extension and contraction of the belly referred to here describes how “abdominal breathing corresponds to movement.”

Only by training this way, without worrying about intentionally. being forceless, can one finally naturally acquire the skills of sinking qi to the dantian (below the navel).

Of course this is difficult to achieve, therefore beginners will only be able to perform very few forms relatively naturally. Much patience is required. But as long as students can be correct in even one third or one quarter of their forms, their movements will benefit. There is no need to be overly demanding and require that all movements within each form regulate the breath. Doing so would only affect natural breathing.

3. Use Intention:

When learning the fonn, students first concentrate on performing the moves correctly. There is no room for the focus of concentration to consider each move’s application. In stage three the requirements are higher: now the student applies imagination to movement. This also increases the student’s intensity of interest in training the mundane forms.

The following two points describe what is meant by applying intention in Stage Three:

  1. Since movements utilize more intention than force, the applications in each move are concentrated. When raising a hand or foot, for example, the movement should be seen as innumerable small lifts, each one directed by intention. This applies to even the minutest movements. By continuing to use the imagination this way, movements will become more and more detailed and the student’s lightness and agility will naturally improve. To train sinking skills, one must imagine “sinking the jin” when sending jin, rather than using force to increase the arm’s power. This applies to all movement.
  2. For the solid/void and tension/relaxation aspects of each move, imagine — even exaggerate — the combat or health-enhancing effect. Because muscle movement is often affected by the psyche, [as discussed in Chapter 2 (TAI CHI, Feb. 1998)], effectiveness in moving can be imperceptibly improved by intentional imagination.
4. Seek Empty Stillness:

This is the method of seeking void within solid, seeking stillness within movement. It is the most difficult skill of T’ ai Chi Ch’ uan. In the previous section, the major focus of imagination was on movement, not stillness, even though we discussed sending intention.

In such a context, victory would be attained through movement, not stillness. This is still inferior to the highest level of T’ai Chi Ch’uan indicated in the sayings “Stillness manages movement” and “As if still, even though moving.”

And so the final principle in both combat and self-cultivation is to “seek empty stillness.” To do so utilizes intention, but in a different way: every form and movement &0151; regardless of it’s shape or content — should be seen either as a state of movement or a state of stillness. Then, based on these states, the imagination concentrates on changing from movement to stillness or from stillness to movement (movement is solid, stillness is void).

This way, one’s movements are influenced by concentrating on seeking stillness, and they become increasingly pure and clean (more implied in intention than explicit in the form).

The spirit can also be tranquilly nurtured from such practice. This kind of training is ideally suited for treating anesthesia and high blood pressure. It is best to train in a quiet environment to avoid being disturbed.

The training methods briefly discussed above are exclusively based on the author’s studies and experience, which probably differs from other practitioners. And many areas were le: unexplained, as well. For example, during any single movement, it is impossible to train lightness and agilii while imagining sinking.

In any given form, we choose to train one or the other. It is best to foc on lightness and agility when movement changes from full to empty, and to focus on sinking when movement changes from empty to full. There an other instances where through detailed study, the practitioner can infer answers from that which is already known.