Tai Chi movements always puzzle onlookers. At first, it seems to them that they are watching a movie in slow motion and they wonder how this can be good for you. When Tai Chi students claim that this is a martial art, it is hard to believe. About a hundred years ago, Tai Chi was considered one of the top four martial art systems in China. It belongs to the Nei Jia school or internal family of kung fu. Xingyi and Bagua are its close relatives.
Practising movements slowly is not unique to Tai Chi. All high level martial arts and health arts use a form of slow, deliberate movements to enhance the inner aspect of the mind and body. When we practise a series of movements quickly, we may miss many finer details in our performance. When we slow things down, our lack of coordination between upper and lower body, uneven, shallow breathing, poor concentration and no feeling of qi in our movements are revealed. In the classical articles on Tai Chi, we are advised to practise the form slowly, smoothly and continuously. Everything should be linked like a flowing stream or the smoothness of reeling silk from a cocoon.
Grandmaster Feng Zhi Qiang (1928-2012), founder of the Hun Yuan Tai Chi system, talked about the importance of building gong, the essence of our practice. First we collect and accumulate qi. This is achieved by practising the Hun Yuan Qigong, Fa Soong Gong and Silk Reeling Gong. Gong practice strengthens the internal. Qi (energy) replenishes the body’s internal system, making the body stronger and more flexible. The practice of quan (the forms, Push Hands and weapons) will be much enhanced, once you have a strong foundation in gong. During the quan practice, qi will be further circulated to the internal organs, meridians and marrow. This is the cultivation of jing qi shen (essence, energy and spirit).
Grandmaster Feng says that gong is like the flour needed to make dumplings. It is the raw material we need to reach the higher stages of training. Later, it becomes the source of your dong li (understanding of power). There is an old saying, “circulating qi is like flowing water.” If you do not have the feeling of internal qi when you practise, you are only doing the form externally. It is like boiling an empty pot. You first need water before you get steam.
People find it easy to become tense but not so easy to relax. By practising slowly, we improve our ability to feel what we are doing. We become conscious of our weaknesses. We know where our tension is. Slow, smooth and continuous practice also relaxes and regulates the nervous system. This helps to create a feeling of internal and external harmony. After a practice session, we feel more relaxed, happy and peaceful.
When we practise the Tai Chi form in a slow, relaxed manner, we also train our sinews and tendons. This does not happen when we tense our muscles. Slow, relaxed training also allows the body to develop more holistically. We are not just training one area. Everything develops altogether. In the beginning, it seems to us that we are progressing very slowly. However, every part of our body is benefitting from the practice. This means that it is a very efficient method of exercising. Slow, relaxed practice helps to avoid injuries. It also improves our ability to go from softness to hardness in an instant. This enables us to issue power quickly in a martial arts context.
Practising Tai Chi slowly will give you many more benefits than any relaxant medication and with no side effects. However, you have to do the practice!