What is the best approach in teaching the important fine points of Taiji? Should the instructor not focus on these fine points, as new students already have their hands full in learning the rudimentary movements of the forms? Or should the instructor remind the students of these fine points because these fine points are important from either the health perspective or the martial arts perspective, and it is more difficult to undo a bad habit and replace it with a new one? Thus there are two general approaches to teaching Taiji. The major difference in the two approaches is the amount of emphasis on several basic but important fine points when performing the forms. This article discusses some of these fine points and the approach that I favor.
Although Taiji is an exercise that people of all ages can learn and one doesn’t have to be an athlete to perform the forms, it is not necessarily easy to perform the forms well. To learn a new form, usually it takes many repetitions, at first following an instructor or a video, then followed by performing the form over and over on one’s own. It is also very easy to forget, so if one hasn’t practiced a form for several days, then very likely one would have forgotten some aspects of the form, if not the whole form. Therefore, some instructors would refrain from correcting the students’ forms if they can follow the general movements of the forms, even though they are missing many of the important fine points of Taiji, for fear that it is too much for the students to learn at the same time.
My own preference is that although initially we should not demand perfection from the students in performing the forms, we should emphasize the correct way and the significance of performing the form in that way. Having these fundamental fine points incorporated from the very beginning will actually result in a shorter time for the students to learn and perform the forms correctly. Furthermore, the quality of their performance will be better than those students who first learned the forms without paying attention to the fine points and then correcting their performance after they have already “learned” the forms.
We now discuss several of the basic but important fine points in performing Taiji forms.
- Make sure that there is a lateral separation of about one shoulder width between your two feet. An almost universal mistake by beginning Taiji students is placing their two feet near a straight line, with the result that if the center of gravity of the person is outside of this straight line or two closely-adjacent straight lines, they will fall or can easily be pushed to fall. Therefore, having a lateral one-shoulder-width separation between the two feet gives rise to a stronger foundation, and makes it less likely for you to fall while walking and more difficult for the opponent to get you off balance.
- Make sure that your front foot is pointing directly along the direction to your opponent. If it is pointing at an angle to the direction of your opponent, then there will be a component of your force that is perpendicular to the direction to your opponent, and that force component will be wasted.
- Make sure that you pivot your rear foot, so that it is not perpendicular to the direction to your opponent. Otherwise, your body will not be relaxed and your movement will not be agile because your rear foot is leading you to a direction that is perpendicular to the direction that you want to go.
- Make sure that you do the cat step, i.e., step down with your heal first, followed by stepping down with your toes. When you do the cat step, as you step down with your toes, your leg, your body, and your attacking arm will all move toward your opponent simultaneously, thus increasing the power of your attack. Since you are always flexing your knees when using the cat step to walk, it is also healthier than walking by shuffling your feet.
- Make sure that your shoulders are sloping downward, and not upward. This will relax your shoulders and reduce your body’s tenseness and stress, and will also increase the power of your strikes.
- Make sure that you rotate your waist in executing many of the movements. In order for you to be able to rotate you waist and still face your opponent, you need to pivot your foot in the previous movement. This will not only exercise your waist muscles, but also increase the power of your strikes by adding the power from the rotation of your waist.
- In general your elbows are almost never completely straight and locked, including the elbow of your striking hand. This is because you want your striking hand to penetrate your opponent; you don’t want your striking hand to stop or slow down significantly when it reaches your opponent’s body. Because the energy transfer from your striking hand to your opponent’s body is proportional to the square of your hand’s velocity, you want that velocity to be as large as possible. If your striking hand is completely straight or your elbow is locked when it reaches the opponent’s body, then at that point the striking hand’s velocity is zero or near zero. From a health perspective, a slightly bent elbow also makes the hand more relax. Aiming to penetrate your opponent’s body with your striking arm (or leg) is the same reason that in breaking boards one aims below the board (for more discussion about breaking boards, see my website article “The Physics of Martial Arts: Breaking Boards.”)
- Because breathing properly in Taiji is important from both the perspectives of health and martial arts, integrating breathing to the extent of when to breathe in and breathe out should be incorporated, although not necessarily at the very beginning of the first course on Taiji, but perhaps about mid-way through that first course. When I teach the Simplified Yang Style 24 Form, I start to integrate breathing after teaching the first 12 forms. However, I do not include using lower abdominal breathing.
- Make sure that you keep your upper body straight, thus facilitating the need to constantly change directions, because in Taiji your movement depends greatly on your opponent’s movement, so you need to change directions frequently. This is symbolized by the Taiji symbol with the yang changing into yin and yin changing into yang. You change directions by shifting the weight on your feet.
We want also to mention several other fine points that are not as directly tied to bodily positions during form movement:
- Relax your body and mind. Empty your mind of extraneous thoughts, but the mind is not completely empty. The mind should lead the form, i.e., visualize the form while you are doing the form. This is one of the health benefits of Taiji, because you are exercising not only your body, but also your mind, which is especially important for senior citizens. When one doesn’t use the mind on a regular basis, then it is more likely to lead to Alzheimer Disease. When you reach an advanced level of Taiji and Qigong, you also use your mind to direct your Qi to increase your power.
- As you go beyond introductory Taiji, you want to practice lower abdominal breathing, instead of the usual upper chest breathing. With lower abdominal breathing, your diaphragm is moving up and down, thus massaging the internal organs in your lower abdomen. When you exercise your arms and legs, you make your arms and legs stronger. When you massage your internal organs, you are exercising your internal organs and thus make them stronger.
- As in engaging in any other sport, before doing the Taiji forms it is important to do some warm up exercises to loosen your muscles and make your body more flexible. This also helps to reduce physical problems or injury to your body, such as knee pains. Usually in a one-hour class, I will spend the first 15-20 minutes doing warm up exercises, and in a one hour and 45 minute class, I will spend the first 25-30 minutes doing warm up exercises. Similarly, I encourage my students to do some warm up exercises when they are practicing Taiji at home. Even if they are practicing for only 15-20 minutes, I suggest to them to do at least five minutes of warm up exercises.
- It is important to practice Taiji more than once per week, from either a martial arts perspective or a health perspective. Modern scientific research during the last 20 years all seem to indicate that one can obtain measurable health benefits from practicing Taiji three times per week for one hour each practice.
From the above discussion, we can see that to perform the Taiji forms well, one needs to pay attention to many fine points. These fine points are important because they are either beneficial from the health perspective or beneficial from the martial arts perspective, or from both perspectives. All of these fine points, with the exception of using lower abdominal breathing and utilizing the mind to direct the Qi, can be taught in the first Taiji course. Whether these fine points are incorporated in the first or subsequent courses, it will normally require several courses over an extended period of time before one can perfect all these fine points in one’s performance. This is why it is extremely beneficial to take the same Taiji course multiple times. Each time, you either learn more of these subtle points while doing the forms, or your incorporation of these subtle points becomes better and better. I can speak about this from my personal experience. I took the same course “Simplified Yang Style 24 Form” from three different teachers for at least seven times  , and the last few times I took the course was after I had already taught the same course several times. I found that I learned a non-negligible amount in each course.
 For most of these courses, I also had to pay tuition.