Gaps & deficiencies

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Everybody makes mistakes during tai chi practice. This is quite normal and human. Once you become aware of a mistake it is usually easy to correct.
Ultimately, a student learns to feel when they are making a mistake and then correct it themselves.
At this point, they are responsible for their own practice. Some faults are more serious than others and could lead to injury; especially during a combat situation.


Gaps are holes in your practice that can be exploited by an opponent. A gap may be caused by poor postural alignment, leaving a leg behind when you step or failing to complete an application.
Every mistake represents an opportunity. It is essential that we spot those gaps in the class and correct them.

Enter each situation without telegraphing your arrival and leave without a trace.

(Barefoot Doctor) 


A deficiency is a lack and in tai chi this typically refers to:

  1. Accuracy

  2. Awareness

  3. anticipation

  4. Emotional instability

  5. Failure to yield

  6. No groundpath

  7. No neigong

  8. Poor connection throughout the body

  9. Poor footwork

  10. Tensing the muscles

Deficiencies are qualities that weaken the way in which you practice tai chi. They need to be identified and corrected. Gaps and deficiencies can cripple your combat abilities.


Your master cannot reasonably spot all of your mistakes, so it is important to enlist the help of your practice partner.
If you are making a mistake they need to tell you in a friendly way and offer help if you need it.


Tolkien wrote "the burned hand teaches best". Partner work must involve physical contact. If you succeed in escaping, only to forget about your opponent, a gentle slap reminds you.
If you evade a punch, but leave yourself wide open, a second blow will remind you. A playful tap is much more memorable than a conversation and takes far less time.


Some people look unhappy when they are corrected. Others look irritated.
It is important to consider why you are being corrected... Tai chi is not competitive or petty. Your teacher corrects you because they care about your progress and wellbeing.

Lack of correction

Uncorrected practice can lead to injury. Accept the correction with good grace and courtesy. You can learn from it.

No plateaus

Tai chi practice can always be improved; there is no conclusion to the training, no place to rest.
You will never reach a 'plateau' unless you stop the discipline. Do not become arrogant, defensive or emotionally-invested in your practice.

Unavoidable gaps and deficiencies

Once you are capable of performing the tai chi without making obvious mistakes, it is necessary to become aware of flaws in the system.
Every combat application has areas of weakness and you must know what they are.
These cannot be patched by improving your pattern of movement. It is simply not possible to offer the perfect counter to every conceivable attack.
You must simply accept the flaws and learn how you can compensate for their existence.
San sau

San sau is the first exercise that explores how to use gaps and deficiencies to your advantage. It uses relative positioning to offer holes in the defences and trick the opponent into attacking.
This approach is taken from the Art of War; apparent weakness is utilised to lure the opponent closer. The later syllabus takes this much further.

5 challenges

The first major test of your ability to adapt is the 5 challenges. From the very first challenge you must demonstrate an awareness of your weaknesses and how to compensate for them.

Look to your own faults,
What you have done or left undone.
Overlook the faults of others.


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Page created 18 April 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023