Understanding form

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Tai chi is form

You can immediately gauge the skill level of a tai chi exponent by looking at their form. Form is a manifestation of how you personally move. It directly advertises your ability. Or lack of?
A strong, martial expression of tai chi is instantly evident in the cat-like manner in which a skilled exponent moves.

What you started with

When people come to class, their bodies are normally undisciplined; poorly coordinated, immobile, insensitive, clumsy and not in any way graceful, nimble or agile.
Their minds are often awry and anxious. They have unrealistic ambitions that neither their body nor mind can fulfil. We teach qigong, form and partner work in order to impose order on chaos.


If one really wishes to be master of an art, technical knowledge of it is not enough. One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an Ďartless artí growing out of the unconscious.

(Eugen Herrigel)

Motor learning

To gain power and skill in any endeavour, there must be commitment, teaching, sustained practice, focus, on-going improvement, refinement, corrections and a lot of hard work.
Self-discipline is a must. A tai chi student cannot wield a blade or engage in combat successfully if their body is a mess and their mind is scattered.

Form is the main tool we use to discipline both body and mind; to bring harmony and order.

Cherry picking

Failing to train form on a daily basis or de-emphasising its importance is foolish. Form trains you to move the appropriate muscles and maintain healthy skeletal alignment at all times.
If your muscles, tendons and ligaments do not support the joints, the joints will function abnormally. Some knee problems can be caused by bad tai chi practice.

Poor form?

Poor form means that the form offers virtually no fitness or martial benefits.

Form every day

Tai chi form was never intended to be a once-a-week exercise. It was designed for daily practice.
Ideally, 15-20 minutes should be set aside for form because the complete sequence takes that long to perform.
A beginner may only have 2 movements to train or a 2 minute sequence, but they should still consider committing 15 minutes practice to what they have learned.

Slow down

One big focus of tai chi is slow motion movement. Now that you are making progress it is necessary to address the pace of your exercises.
Qigong, form and solo drilling should be performed at a notably slower pace in order to attain full strength.


In order to be soft, you must first relax. In order to be relaxed, your joints must first loosen. When your joints are loose, you can move your body as one unit and manifest your jing like a soft whip.

(Yang Jwing-Ming)


The shoulders are commonly overused in tai chi. They should be connected to the hips and moved as a consequence of the leg and waist muscles, rather than independently.
There are no conventional punches in tai chi; you never deliver a blow by 'cocking' the shoulder. The shoulders should be free to fold and flex normally but never lead the movement.
If your shoulders are stiff, consider how free the legs are...

Pelvis, hips & knees

The pelvis hardly moves in tai chi - it is the hip kwa that moves. Keep the pelvis heavy and let the muscles of your waist and legs move the body.
Many students sink deep into the knees instead of the hips - this is how you can damage the knees. If your knees hurt during tai chi practice, look to the pelvis first.
Loose hips, relaxed lower back and ankles will allow the knee to move comfortably.


Sinking into your hips and letting the pelvis become heavy will allow the lower back to relax fully. When the tailbone drops, your spine lengthens naturally. Make sure that the rear knee is relaxed.
You should feel a sensation behind the shoulders called 'pluck up the back'. Stiffness and holding will reduce mobility - the vertebra should be free to flex and rotate as you move.


A new starter should do very few form movements until they begin to get some sense of their own body. Our syllabus limits people to the first section of the Long Yang form initially.
These are revised until the more serious faults are removed. People who fail to train form at home seldom get past section 1 of the most basic form in our syllabus.

This state of unconsciousness is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill.

(Eugen Herrigel)

Movement, not fixity

Form serves to shape movement, it is the movement that matters martially. Shaped energy removes randomness and renders the movement tangible. Tai chi is the movement, the essence.
We must explore how that movement can be used for in combat.
Do not fixate on the final shape; focus instead upon the means that produce that shape, how it occurs and what drives the body to generate the required jing.


Certain body parts enable us to move in three dimensions:

  1. Up & down, using hand and back

  2. Side-to-side, using the waist, hips and legs

  3. Movement between the feet

Every form movement must be considered in light of this.


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Page created 21 May 1997
Last updated 16 June 2023