Slow and Steady

Tai Chi has become prevalent enough throughout the world to be recognized by most people who see it being practiced1. When I chat with people who don’t know Tai Chi, they will often comment on how graceful and serene it looks because of the slow, steady pace. But looking graceful and serene are not the key reasons we practice this way. These two key aspects of practice and the core reasons are described well by Cheng Man-ch’ing and Robert Smith in their excellent book T’ai Chi: The “Supreme Ultimate” Exercise for Health, Sport, and Self-Defense.

SLOWNESS  The movements must be done at the same slow pace throughout. There are no fast postures - all are done at the same speed. […] Slowness permits distinctness of movement and is attuned to calmness of mind. Also, it enables the mind to function to its fullest in imagining an opponent and in recognizing and appreciating the role played by the components of the body as one moves through the exercise.2

LINKAGE  Although the movements are done slowly, there is no interruption. The postures flow evenly without pause from start to end. The ch’i is blocked when the flow is impeded. Once one has paused, it takes several postures before one is again “on the track.” This wastes these postures since, if they are not true, they are useless. Do the exercises as though “pulling silk from a cocoon.”3 Although Westerners initially may not understand this, a few words will make it clear. In pulling silk one must pull slowly, easily, and - above all - steadily. If one pauses, the strand will break when the pulling is started again.4

There are many other qualities we seek while practicing Tai Chi, but these are two crucial ones. And there are many implications to this way of practicing, including cultivating chi: “Therefore in practicing the form, slower is better. If it is slow, the inhalation and exhalation are long and deep and the ch’i sinks to [the] tan t’ien.”5. There are many other implications, from the meditative to the martial, and anyone can start gaining them by incorporating ‘slow and steady’ into their practice.

1 Though sometimes non-practitioners will mistake c'hi cultivation exercises (ch'i kung / qì gōng) for Tai Chi.
2 T'ai Chi: The "Supreme Ultimate" Exercise for Health, Sport, and Self-Defense; page 10
3 In Chinese, ch'ou ssu chin (chōu sī jìn), literally 'drawing silk skill'.
4 T'ai Chi: The "Supreme Ultimate" Exercise for Health, Sport, and Self-Defense; page 10
5 Point ten of [Yang Cheng-fu's] 'Ten Important Points' from The Essence of T'ai Chi Ch'uan - The Literary Tradition; Annotated Edition; page 113
† 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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