In the SupermarketSometimes, when I'm in the supermarket, pondering the short shelf life of vegetables, wondering what they may have been sprayed with, to make them glow from such a distance - someone will come up to me and say: "Hey Teapotmonk, I'd like to learn Tai Chi, but i've heard that it takes forever and a day to learn. Tell me," they say, "How long does the Form take to learn? And is it true that you remain a beginner for the first twenty years of your practice?"
So I usually push my trolley to one side, return the radioactively bright red apples back into their lead containers and nonchalantly throw the question back
"In how much of a hurry are you to stop learning? For you see, the process of learning is a gift, not a chore. You see, when we stop learning, we stagnate. And this isn't just my crazy idea. I teach languages too, and there's a ton of research that says if you learn a new language as you get older then, your mind continues to develop, create new connections between neurons and help prevent mental degeneration. This is true also for the body and the practice of Tai Chi."
"So, I ask again, exactly why are you in such a hurry for this process to end?" And then I glance back at the radioactive vegetables and ponder some more.
Whats the Rush?
And this brings us on to today's subject: What's it all about? Because on the surface we are talking about time, duration and the slow steps towards acquiring another way of life. And lets be honest here, Tai Chi is not simply a martial art, an exercise for rejuvenation, a method of mediation in movement....these are all attributes of many other disciplines. What distinguishes this art is its profound depths and potential to change the very direction we are heading in. And if we don't change the direction we are heading in then we may just end up arriving there. And we wouldn't want that now would we?
If we so let it, if we are truly open to changes in direction, if we know how to interpret the language of our intuition..
Steve jobs said it well: “Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Each step in the form is a wonderful transition, for each step opens us to another way of interacting with the world. So I ask again....Whats the rush?
The Wing Chun RushI once had a student who came to me from a Wing Chun class. He wanted to incorporate some of the lessons of Tai Chi into his fighting style and said that he wished to learn the short form within just three months. We trained early in the mornings in a park in London, and over those three months he learnt the form. His form was a reasonable copy of mine, he had used - what I call the tracing paper Method and duplicated more or less the appearance of my form. But it said nothing about him. And if you looked closer, it was neither soft or circular. Instead, it was linear and tense and punctuated by too many stops and starts. For he could only see the postures, he was blind to the transitions.
We had no time to explore what lay underneath the surface. That's which oozes out slowly, and only through the patient study of the subtleties and the recognition of the importance of transitions. Only then, after that depth of study can you claim to know anything about Tai Chi.
The greatest lesson that TC teaches us is that the benefits are in the doing, not the achievement. If it takes you a lifetime to learn, if you stay a beginner for 20 years, then you are indeed lucky, as the benefits will stay with you that long. If you speed-learn the Form, then you will only end up skipping the slow detail, and it is in the slow awakening of detail that you will find the real treasure.
Watch this video on Speed Tai Chi if you really want to rush your practice.
The BakersSometimes, when I'm in the bakers, someone will stop me and say, hey Teapotmonk, before you disappear with that packet of croissants, tell me: Which Form is best to learn? Is it the short form or the long form? The old-form, or the combined form, the weapons forms or partner forms?
I tell them that the only form they need to concern themselves with is the one they will sign to learn tai chi. Worry about that one, not any of the others. Make sure you don't sign anything silly, like ...I agree to only buy my Chinese slippers from Sifu when he deems it necessary. Or Yes, I will purchase a new satin suit every new moon, here is my deposit.
The Mobile Phone ShopSometimes, when I'm in the mobile phone shop, queering why - in this day and age - my unused data allowance cannot be carried over to the following month, someone will come up and say, Hey arnt you the Teapotmonk...and I say....I might be? then tell me this..they say...
Why bother with the Long Form when the Short Form is shorter?
Then, I put to one side the rather lickable phone case that I had been considering and say....Certainly the tendency these days is to focus more on the Short Form. This may just be a reflection of our waning attention spans, or perhaps just a reflection of our multifarious commitments in this increasingly networked and interconnected world. I then wave a smart phone at the questioner to reinforce my point.
Whatever the reason, the popularity of the shorter Forms has permitted people with less energy, and with less time to learn some aspect of Tai Chi. These shorter Forms essentially remove much of the repetition present in the longer versions. Cheng Man Ching said that you should practice his short form for between seven and twelve minutes to get the full benefits and I think this probably touches upon the real debate about Long - versus - Short: about time, intuition and our slow passage through this worldly paradise....it is really about concentration and focus, not the number of postures.
The Art of Not ConcludingYou can practice the Long Form quickly and without focus, or the Short Form slowly and with concentration. Any instructor would rather see more of the latter than that of the former.
In short, focus your practice on quality rather than the number of minutes or the postures in your form. Leave others to debate such trivia. Focus, and in focusing you will find the depth of insight you seek.
As for The long Form is well worth learning, but not at the expense of quality over duration. Always remember that Tai Chi is a tool that you adapt to where you are, and who you are. Start, and let the circumstances and energy roll you forward until the time is right to stop.
Download/listen to the full podcast below or.....
Want More on the Teapotmonk Approach to Tai Chi? Read the Tai Chi Trilogy and sign up for notice on new podcasts, new articles and new videos here.