Balancing Our Form Practice

As we learn Tai Chi, we also learn about the importance of daily practice. While developing and maintaining our form practice, there are three kinds of form-related practice we need to balance: Form for flow, Standing practice (chan kung / zhàn gōng) or ‘Posturing’, and holding Preparation Posture, also called ‘Holding Wu Chi’.

Form For Flow

The first of the three may be the most familiar: practicing the form for flow. Knowing the form completely and being confident in the sequence allows us to practice the entire form from start to finish, doing so in the most integrated, continuous manner we can; the longer we’ve been practicing Tai Chi the more enjoyable the experience becomes. But it is also possible to select a portion of the form and practice that portion for flow, offering us the chance to focus on improving the way we execute those transitions and postures. Form for flow is a very important part of our practice and is beneficial in many ways, such as helping us develop integrated, relaxed movement, internal awareness of the dynamics of our movement and how well we are following the Tai Chi principles, and helps us achieve better mind/body integration.

Standing Practice (chan kung / zhàn gōng); Posturing

Chan kung is: “Standing practice which helps to develop the legs, root, ch’i and relaxation” (Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on T’ai Chi Ch’uan page 219). Wolfe Lowenthal recorded Cheng Man-ch’ing’s description of this practice (There are No Secrets page 26): “The fundamental method for a person who has just begun to do Tai Chi is to take three to five minutes in the morning and the evening, alternating standing first on one leg then on the other. Gradually the time is lengthened, gradually the person sits lower. The mind should be put into the tan tien, and without forcing, even a little bit, the heart of the foot should adhere to the ground. When one is rooting, he should extend his middle and index fingers to hold onto the back of a chair or the edge of a table, in order to be stable. After a while, when that is familiar, he can take away the middle finger, using just the index finger for assistance. Eventually even this will become very stable and the person will not need to be assisted by his fingers anymore.” Once stabilizing touch is no longer needed, the recommended postures for this practice are Lift Hands and Play P’i P’a (pí pá; sometimes called Play Guitar).

Standing practice is not limited to one-legged postures; in fact standing in Single Whip was a favorite of Cheng Man-ch’ing’s. To work both sides, we can use Single Whip or another 70/30 posture with the left leg in front, and a 70/30 posture with the right leg in front such as Press or Push. Again, we hold the posture for the same length of time on each side, striving to maintain all the principles while doing so and lengthening the duration gradually over time. You might also find it beneficial to vary the postures you hold, as it will help you discover details of your internal organization while you hold each and avoid your practice going stale.

But there is another way to do standing practice, which will be familiar to anyone who has taken workshops or attended camps of Mr. Lo and his students: “posturing”. In posturing work, we take a section of the form and work our way through the transitions and postures very slowly, spending time in key transition points and in the postures themselves. This type of practice is particularly valuable for giving us insights into how we are executing the form, such as building the gentle, tenacious strength we need in our legs, finding where we need to let go of tension, and practicing how to transition smoothly from one posture to the next. Lenzie Williams speaks of how spending time doing posturing helps us pre-dispose ourselves to do things more correctly because we’ve spent time in those places, learning the ‘feel’ of each transition point and posture.

Preparation Posture; Holding Wu Chi

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is holding Preparation Posture, which is often called “Holding Wu Chi” because “This posture represents T’ai Chi before it separates into yin and yang which in Taoist philosophy is known as “Wu Chi”. Cheng Man-ch’ing called this “the standing posture used to cultivate the life principle” and wrote that “Most people neglect this posture. Who would have thought that the way to practice and the applications are all based on this one? When you begin to study, you must be very clear about this.” (Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on T’ai Chi Ch’uan pages 114-116).

Holding Preparation is in many ways the most important practice, and for some reason seems to be the one most often neglected. This standing practice helps us cultivate proper internal organization while following the basic principles, helps us embody the ideas of suspending the headtop while relaxing & sinking internally, and is a deep mindfulness practice as we focus our awareness inside and learn to not attend to thoughts that emerge from our unconscious.

Balancing the Three

In our personal practice, we should spend time doing all three types of practice, spending similar amounts of time on each. Each of them offers unique benefits, and those benefits combine to produce better results than if we focus on only one or two of them. If you’re unfamiliar with or uncertain about how to practice any of them, ask your teacher to help you.

† If you have questions about Chinese terms used, you may find About Chinese Terms helpful.

This is part of Thoughts on Tai Chi, a collection of writings exploring various aspects of Tai Chi. If you know someone who would enjoy reading it, please forward it to them.

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