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Slow & boring?

Often, when people see tai chi they immediately think "slow and boring". This is quite understandable. Most tai chi being practiced in the world is quite low level. It is far from advanced.
There will be no high speed skills demonstrated, and certainly nothing worthy of combat. This is to be expected.

Start slow

Tai chi always starts slow. How come? It is all that your body is capable of when you begin lessons. Speed requires incredible looseness in the body, a refined nervous system and superb balance.
As your skill grows, the speed will increase.

How slow?

Some tai chi people like to go very slow. That is their choice.
Our school doesn't favour extreme slowness. We don't see the advantage. Slowing down is fine. Going too slow can lead to tension...


Our approach to tai chi places emphasis upon physical sensitivity and awareness. You must be totally present in order for the system to work effectively for fitness, meditation and combat.
This entails feeling every part of your body consciously as it moves. Immersing yourself in the 'here and now' heightens your awareness and reduces the risk of injury.


Modern life involves a lot of boring activities. People are accustomed to daydreaming or 'spacing out'. Tai chi necessitates complete attention. This is the challenge.
The art helps the mind to become calm and centred.

Meditation process

Slow motion practice encourages your mind to remain captivated by the immediacy of the moment, to feel every nuance of every movement. This degree of awareness is very healthy.
Your mind drifts and you return. Again and again and again.


The equivalent process to seeking the "Holy Grail" in internal arts is the ability to move more slowly than your opponent and consistently win.

Slower speed that wins out requires three types of speed coming together simultaneously:

1. Timing.

2. The signals required to maintain some level of conscious power.

3. The ability to release the internal gears of your body, which, if they freeze up, can create a momentary mental gap that breaks the connection between you and your opponent.

This method is referred to in the tai chi classics in the form of a question:

"How is it possible that an old man can defeat a group of younger men?"

Obviously, elderly men, even the most talented, are not physically capable of moving at the speed of young men. Virtually, by definition, the elderly move with slowness, and yet those old men internal arts masters by slipping in between the gaps, are justifiably well-known for defeating younger and faster men.

(Bruce Frantzis)


The loose, flowing movements of tai chi form are often deliberately slower than normal speed. Gravity is maintained when you move slowly.
You can align the body to work with gravity and improve your balance. Leaning of any kind will destabilise the body.

Controlled movement

It is fairly easy to move quickly. Try lifting a leg in slow motion... the leg feels very heavy and hard to move.
At first when your body submits to gravity it can feel as if you are lifting weights every time you practice the art. Stronger bones and muscles are developed as a consequence.


Moving slowly is quite difficult. New students cannot sustain a slow, even movement. They jerk.

Nervous system

The remedy to jerky movement is to practice. Gradually, your body changes from within. Slowing your movements entails the release of tension and the softening of the nerves.
A calm, relaxed body can move softly and evenly without effort.

Too slow?

If you go too slowly it can be counter-productive; instead of loosening and relaxing, you stiffen up. This occurs because the muscles are working too hard to carry the weight of the body.
Find a pace that is slow but still smooth.

Easy pace

Beginners find it quite difficult to move more slowly. This is understandable. In our class, beginners move at a comfortable, easy pace. They are not encouraged to slow down much at first.


Students are asked to slow down in order to make the muscles work. This makes the practice far more potent. The body must work harder, and excellent balance is developed.


When you slow down during form practice, you begin to notice things. The study of tai chi involves a refinement of awareness, in which certain qualities are allowed and cultivated.
By being slow, you can pay attention to what is happening.

Not rushing

Rushing is not healthy. Fast movement is often at the expense of good body alignment and can indicate a loss of composure.
The unhurried pace of tai chi allows you time to experience life in a more complete fashion.


Students usually get a crude sense of tai chi partner work quite quickly but occasionally don't get very good at it. The reason why is simple... There are 3 considerations:

  1. The speed/pace determined by your level of excitement

  2. The actual speed that your nervous system can currently handle

  3. How present you really are

The discrepancy between the 3 is the issue. Your mind/emotions wants to go fast but your nervous system cannot cope. And maybe you're not fully aware because you're thinking about other things.

Ability decides

The solution is to go much slower than you want to. Go at a pace that your body/mind can handle. You will start to physically 'feel' every subtle nuance and shift and change taking place.
You will be there, rather than 'zoning out'. Eventually all you will experience is that moment; those changes - and how your body automatically responds - without the need to think consciously.
As you become more skilled, your nervous system will comfortably allow you to move at whatever pace the situation demands...

Partner work

Faster paced training is only undertaken by tai chi students. As a student moves deeper into the syllabus the pace accelerates as their skill increases.
Partner work is usually quite fast; there are very few slow motion partner drills.

Combat is not slow

Combat is not slow. It necessitates an adaptive approach: the student moves at whatever pace is most appropriate.
The aim is to minimalise your movements so that they take less time to perform, are less discernable and cannot easily be predicted.

 If you want to make your movement more efficient, you have to be aware of when you are working too hard. If you slow down and thereby increase your ability to sense differences in muscular effort level, you increase the brainís ability to sense and correct any potential excess and unnecessary effort. Imagine that every time you try to extend the hip, you are at the same time slightly contracting the hip flexors instead of relaxing them. This means that your muscles are cross-motivated - the flexors are fighting the extensors a little in their effort to extend the leg, making them work harder. You will be much better able to sense and inhibit this inefficient co-contraction by moving very slowly and easily. By contrast, if you move fast and hard, you will never be able to sense and correct the problem.

(Todd Hargrove)

Page created 18 March 1997
Last updated 16 June 2023