Some Thoughts on Form & No Form (Free Flow)
One of the questions you sometimes hear from students is: "Why is this movement done in this way, why does it look like this?". Good question. Why does a certain form look like it does, why are all of the movements in Yang or Chen Tai Chi or in 5 Animal Qigong done in the way they are? What's the No. 1 reason you hear when asked why someone doesn't practice Tai Chi or Qigong? "Oh it's too difficult for me, I couldn't do it." Why couldn't they do it? It's not because of the time it takes (if you have time for Yoga or Pilates, you could have time for Tai Chi as well), it's because of the movements. In this post I'll be thinking out loud some of the thoughts about forms and free flow. What follows is musings - no results guaranteed.
Background: The richness (and complexity) of the Chinese arts
Everything seems to be linked together in China. The concepts of Yin & Yang (two polarities manifesting in myriad of ways), Qi (life force or universal energy), and Dao (the Way, or natural flow of all things) are not just some old-fashioned or religious-philosophical tenets. They are felt everywhere in China, in all levels of society, everywhere you look. From Chinese calligraphy to martial arts, to Chinese medicine, to Feng Shui, to cooking / food ingredients, to music, to celebrations, to architecture - to name just a few - everything seems to follow a pattern. To say that "life has more flow" in China is not far from the truth. A small wonder then that in this same country so many different ways of moving were invented. The number of different Qigong styles is estimated somewhere between 2000 and 3000 (the real number is more likely closer to 5000). The number of different Tai Chi styles is smaller, somewhere between 50 and 100, depending on how one counts (newer and hybrid styles). To many people in the West, this can feel simply too overwhelming. Which style to choose, if and when there's so many of them? Is one supposed to learn all of them? (The answer to the last one: no, as one lifetime wouldn't be enough).
To make things more interesting (read: challenging) is the fact the every style contains a number of forms. Chen style Taiji has both Lao Jia (old frame) and Xin Jia (new frame) styles. Both of these have the so-called "yi lu" and "er lu", or first form and second form, which are the basic Tai Chi forms. Both styles also have a number of weapon forms, e.g. sword (single and double hand forms), broadsword (single and double hand forms), spear, staff, and fan. And, of course, all of those forms are different. Likewise, Wudang Tai Chi is not just one Tai Chi form, but a style with a number of different forms. Within each tradition or discipline the forms might not be hugely different, but nevertheless they're not identical either.
Grandmaster Ma Hong (1927-2013) showing parts of the Chen Taijiquan Xinjia Yilu
The form teaches you to move... better
Regardless of which Tai Chi or Qigong style one chooses, they all do the same thing: the form teaches you to move better, correcting your posture and stance, aligning different parts of the body so that you feel more united in your being. You learn how to ground and root yourself, open the channels so that Qi can run smoothly, and over time your balance and coordination improves. You also learn how to breathe more correctly. Tai Chi and Qigong also provide (rather sneakily) a way of emptying and clearing the mind: if you don't focus on the movements, there's a good chance you won't be able to execute the movements correctly. One has to keep the mind fixed on what the limbs are doing if one wants to learn the movements. That's a very effective way of meditating without realising it.
Qi and martial arts
Compared to free flow (moving without any predesignated form or pattern), Tai Chi and Qigong emphasise Qi, our life-force or universal energy. According to this principle, nothing would exist without Qi; it's the basic building block of all life. If Qi runs smoothly within our energetic system, we are healthy and enjoy living our lives in this body we're given. If Qi gets blocked somewhere in our body, there's either a feeling of discomfort or then (if the blockage stays there) disease. One of the main purposes of practicing Tai Chi and Qigong is to make the Qi stronger, and to clear any blockages in the meridian system.
Tai Chi is also a form of martial arts. Many people are surprised to hear that all of the movements have a purpose, that it's not just about waving your arms and legs aimlessly in the air. Even one, same movement in Tai Chi, say "White Crane Spreads Wings" or "Repulse the Monkey" have many martial art applications, all equally valid. Even if you wouldn't be interested in the martial art aspect of Tai Chi, it's still useful and good to know about the applications, because it helps you understand the movements. One could say that the martial art aspect represents the outer side of Tai Chi; how circulation and movement of Qi corresponds to the movements could be seen as the internal side of Tai Chi. How does Qi move in your meridian system and body when you execute the movement "Snake Creeps Down" or "Rooster Standing On One Foot" - Tai Chi offers an endless exploration into many different realms.
The forms offer tried and tested methods of using our body in different ways, allowing us to become stronger and healthier or removing the opponent, sometimes both at the same time. Not all of the forms are necessary ancient (e.g. some Wudang forms date back only to mid 1900s, although they are based on older, similar forms) but they all contain wisdom and power within them. Over time, certain movements have been replaced by other movements, some forms have become merged together, some have disappeared - and the forms still keep changing. This is, after all, a living art. Each generation will bring something new to the forms, and so the forms change, even if we might not be able to see this. I doubt there's any Tai Chi or Qigong teacher or master, whose forms would've remained identical throughout the years. As we grow and change, so does our way of moving within the forms.
Slow = boring?
For many people Tai Chi and Qigong feel too different or alien compared to other types of exercise, e.g. running or Yoga or HIIT or boxing. And it's true - the Chinese arts are different. Tai Chi and Qigong do not aim at making you exhausted or pumped with adrenaline or providing a good cardio workout. However, I can guarantee that if you do Zhan Zhuang a.k.a. Standing Like a Post exercise for 30 minutes, you'll be covered in sweat and shaking all over. Then again, to quote Yu Yongnian, "In any sport, with a heart rate above 100, one begins to pant. But with the practice of Zhan Zhuang, at a faster pace, you don't get out of breath. There are physical activities that cause us to lose oxygen in the blood, and others where oxygen is not lost, but where it accumulates. That is why, when one practises Zhan Zhuang for over twenty minutes, even if one begins to sweat, the mind is more clear and the breathing does not accelerate." (Yu Yongnian: Zhan Zhuang - The Art of Nourishing Life). I remember well when I had just started Chen Taiji in Finland, returning from the class after 1,5h of low-posture practice, my legs feeling like jelly and feeling very wobbly all over - but feeling very calm and happy.
Another point to consider is the fact that both Tai Chi and Qigong can be practiced slower or faster, depending on how one prefers. While it's probably fair to say that there's no point in "Tai Chi running", it's nevertheless open to personal adjustment. You can also practice these arts using either higher or lower stances, or taking narrower or wider steps, depending on what kind of practice you wish to do. For those who insist on faster workout, there's always Kung Fu. If that doesn't provide you a fast enough form to work with then I don't know what does.
Wudang Xuan Zhen Quan
It's equally alien from Tai Chi's POV to think that fast = exciting. I can't help thinking here of Master Chiun's wise words in the 1980s Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins: "Do you know why Americans call it fast food? Because it speeds them on their way to the grave. (laughter)." It is challenging to stay relaxed while doing something fast, it takes a lot of practice to achieve this. And relaxation is the most important factor, fair to say the only real rule or tenet, in Tai Chi. If you stay tense or rigid while doing Tai Chi you might just as well not do it at all (actually there's a good chance you'll end up injuring yourself if you practice Tai Chi in a non-relaxed state, forcing your body to move from one position to another - ligaments and tendons won't thank you for it).
Psychological and spiritual aspects
Tai Chi and Qigong forms provide a framework: a pre-existing pattern into which one can enter or which one uses to do the actual 'work'. I find it extremely interesting, even on a purely philosophical or theoretical level, not to mention on practical level. The form belongs to a tradition, and by learning the form you become part of that tradition. There's a sense of respect and responsibility - you don't want to let those down, who have walked the same path (practised the same form) before you. For many people the form provides a safety net of sorts: no matter how chaotic or turbulent their lives may be, once they start doing Tai Chi or Qigong - once they enter the form - everything becomes all right, at least for that moment. The form provides a calibration point of sorts, where only the movement happens, where no troubling thoughts or emotions can interfere, where there's only peace moving and turning, creating more peace with each step. The entry and exit point of the form creates a boundary, a door, between the external and the internal worlds.
But the same could be said about free flow as well. Moving without any predesigned scheme or form, completely embracing the moment, becoming one with your inner self, enjoying the "unprogrammed" flow - why should one follow any set form or pattern? Provided one isn't interested in the martial art aspect of Tai Chi, or using / cultivating their Qi, life-energy, what possible reason would there be to choose these Chinese arts? Doesn't free flow guide and increase our Qi, too, or is that limited to just Tai Chi and Qigong? As long as one is able to use their will - intention - then I believe any kind of moving will do that to Qi. The way I see it, there's no right or wrong answer here. Do whatever makes you happy, whatever supports your health, wellbeing and happiness.
If you find a form, any form, too limiting, then maybe it's better for you not to do any form training, whether it's Tai Chi or anything else. Try out different things and explore, there's so much out there available. A Kung Fu brother of mine, Bjarte Hiley, has recently started Daomove where he teaches moving without any predesigned pattern or form. A famous Tai Chi Master T. T. Liang once said, "After you learn something, you must gradually change it to your own way. Blind followers are dead. Rebels can get something." I've always had a soft spot for rebels and outlaws, I can't help it. After doing Tai Chi and Qigong for a while, listening to Chinese instrumental music in the background (usually guqin) I began experimenting with other genres. Nowadays I might play Meshuggah or Ministry or some hardcore music while doing the forms, other times I'll play guqin or pipa music again, depending entirely on how I feel at that moment. Silence provides another great soundscape as well. Outdoors is the best place to practice, of course, with its own sounds to enhance the practice, whether this be the wind in the trees, birds singing, the sound of traffic, dogs barking or children screaming.
Find your own way into the form, make it yours. But don't rush. Get to know the form inside out.
For the rebels: After that, if it feels necessary, break the form. But do it for the right reasons.