Taijiquan can be practiced at a number of speeds, depending upon one’s purposes. Usually for health and vitality a fairly slower speed is optimum. By fairly slow I mean what we usually think of as ‘normal speed’ when we see people practice in a group, in a park, on TV or with their teacher, or even alone.
Most people think that for Taijiquan to be practiced properly it should be ‘slow, smooth, even and continuous,’ and of course this is correct. This is the basic method and one that even advanced practitioners return to again and again. The reason for this has to do with how Taijiquan practice effects and changes the body.
Like all methods of Qigong (Taiji is both a Qigong and Nei gong system) the physical motions of the forms create a beneficial elongation of the tissues (muscles, tendons and ligaments.) This has the effect of generating a life changing elasticity which manifests as a strength similar to that of an Olympic swimmer rather than of an Olympic weightlifter.
Along with the tissues, the arteries and veins of the body are also effected in a similar manner. This increased flexibility goes a long way to improving overall circulation as well as staving off such conditions as hardening of the arteries and the like. In addition to the sinews, arteries and veins, the nervous system is also strongly effected, making the dedicated practitioner generally less reactive to stress. In addition, the opening and closing aspect of the Taiji movements eventually create a gentle massaging action on the internal organs which has the effect of purging toxins and bringing about an overall strengthening. (Recent scientific research from Hong Kong also states – in addition to all the above – ‘these movements also activate all 54 of the body’s hormones.’)
Besides the ‘normal’ speed mentioned above, there is another speed which is also most beneficial for improving health and is slightly faster than ‘normal.’ This speed can be likened to that of a ‘freely flowing river.’ For those seeking ‘radiant health,’ as well as for those desiring martial power, another necessary stage of training is ‘Extreme Slow practice’ where the long form takes a full hour to complete. Finally for dedicated martial artists there are the Fast Speed practices, designed to eventually generate continuous power as well as fluidity. Now let’s look at each of these in a bit more detail.
THE 4 MAJOR SPEEDS
NORMAL SPEED – (Fairly Slow)
The actual speed of this varies somewhat depending on the teacher(s) we’ve learned from. On one level, what happens is this: doing something slowly, again and again, establishes better and better muscular control. This is similar to how a concert pianist learns and memorizes a piece of complicated music. Practicing the piece over and over establishes absolute muscular control on the physical level and inters this control into the subconscious. Once this has occurred, the pianist can easily play through the music with little if any conscious thought necessary. The same is true of the Taiji form. Seasoned practitioners often describe it as if the form ‘played itself.’ When this happens, our mind is free to remain in the all-important low Dan Tien as the Classics recommend.
FREELY FLOWING RIVER
This speed is somewhat faster than ‘normal speed’ and even more continuous in the blending of the beginning and end points of each posture and transition. Eventually it becomes difficult to tell precisely where one movement stops and the next one begins. This can also be described as the ‘harmonizing’ of the Yang outgoing movements with the Yin incoming movements and is a most excellent speed to develop and maintain a robust and healthy circulation. The rolling-like feeling of the movements emulate a freely flowing river, rising, falling, turning, twisting, all the time moving effortlessly onward in each moment.
EXTREME SLOW PRACTICE
This is actually far more difficult than it may appear at first. A traditional long form might take a full hour to complete. This old-fashioned method of training allows us to root out even the most subtle glitches in our movements, refine our muscular control to very high levels, as well as greatly deepen our relaxation and whole body linkage and connectivity to the point where everything effortlessly comes and goes from the low Dan Tien. Also, extreme slow speed often provides a far greater opportunity to experience the sensations of energy moving to and from the low Dan Tien and throughout the entire body.
FASTER AND FASTEST SPEEDS
‘Faster speed’ is often described as involving smooth, rapidly flowing movements combined with Fa Jin releases. Once this method is accomplished and we are comfortable with it, there is a still faster method which some have termed the ‘Flag-Waving’ method. This method utilizes the rebound from the Fa Jin issuing of each movement to generate the next movement and Fa Jin release. (Issue-rebound, issue- rebound, etc.) The final result is a fully applied solo Taiji fighting form with appropriate power in each movement as it might actually be used against a serious opponent. In appearance, the practitioner almost seems to ‘bounce’ from one small-frame movement to the next. An entire long form might take only about 10 minutes or so.
Finally, it is important to know that each speed we choose to practice at will generate a unique feeling. Each of these different feelings are correct for their particular speed. Some of these feelings are only slightly different from ‘normal speed’ practice, while others differ quite radically. But despite these differences, each method will be found to adhere to the essential, universal Taiji principles.