So, what to do?
I remember my first Taiji teacher would guide his class though repetitions of the Yang style empty hand form, making corrections for each student; more extension here, wider stance there – until we were a single body moving in unison.
Once we had learnt a section of the form, we would then look back at the techniques covered, and practice our ‘fighting techniques’ with each other.
Of course, our applications were sloppy compared to our practice during the form – partly due to the fact we were all ‘new’ to these techniques, and partly down to the fight that, when engaging with another person; either in practice or reality, you are entering into an imperfect situation.
Our teach would say; “In Single Whip, the right hand extends outward with the hook hand, then turn the body back to the left, whilst our left hand sweeps around, we step forward with the left foot and strike with the right hand.”
Even trying to read this back, it seems complicated! So of course, we try to apply Single Whip as teacher has said – our partner punches, we connect and lead his right punch off to our right with our right hand, I get ready to swoop by left hand as I turn back to the left to deliver my kungfu death blow and…. Bugger! My partner is to close to me! I can’t make Single Whip work! Ok, ok, it’s just because I’m a beginner, let’s try again…
And so on, and so on…
As students of the martial arts, sometimes we allow ourselves to put our teachers on a pedestal. Images of Mr. Miyagi getting Daniel-san to wash cars, sand floors and paint fences etc. come into our minds, and we decide that, although we can’t see the benefit now, teacher must know what he is doing!
Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
When I met my third Taiji teacher, he had a radically different approach to any Taiji that I had experienced thus far.
“Form is the LAST thing you learn!” He would proclaim.
Our group was small, but all of us were there to practice the martial aspect of Taiji. Teacher would pick one or two Taiji techniques – the techniques that made up the form – and he would explain their martial functions.
“Here in Ward Off, my opponent punches with his right, my left hand intercepts, and directs his punch to my right hand, which pulls using Cai, whilst I explode-step forward, my left forearm expands with Peng into my opponents throat!” and then we would spend the session practicing these techniques, swapping between partners to find out how to make them ‘work’ on different builds.
So we would learn the fighting techniques that were used in the form. And once we had learnt the techniques that made up a section of the form, we would the be shown how to link them together into the sequence, for solo practice.
It was after about six weeks of training with him that I first saw my third teacher demonstrate the first section of the Yang Taiji form. Most of the movements were quite similar to how I had learned, although they looked a lot more natural, even as practiced slowly. The stances were there, but were more like casual steps than defined Bow-Arrow stance, or False Leg stance.
The arms were not extended as far from the body, and the movements seemed a lot sharper than I had learned with my previous teachers. Martial function was evident in every expansion and contraction.
I could see that this man used his solo form to practice his fighting techniques, as opposed to some who try to use their form to generate their fighting techniques.
And that is the key. To stop treating our forms as devine how-to guides for our styles. We have to take a form and tear it apart into it’s individual pieces and practice, practice, practice and practice some more.
And then, when you string it all back together, practice the form as your practiced the fighting. You’re form might look a lot different, but it may well be more functional than it was before.