Three Speeds of Taiji

Twenty-nine years ago, a friend of mine took me to a Taiji (T’ai Chi) workshop. I had no idea what Taiji was or what it was for. As I waited in the room with many others, the music started to play and this guy came out and started doing this thing called Taiji. Now being a fan of old school Kung-Fu movies, with all the flying and kicking and fast action, I had never seen anything like it before and was taken back by the idea of this being Kung-fu. I guess the thing that was most amazing to me was how slow he was moving. There seem to be this beautiful rhythm to it as he moved around the room from one form to another. I was hooked. I knew there was something special in moving that slow, some secret hidden below the surface that seems to fill the room and capture everyone’s attention. It was almost like watching a black panther moving in the jungle you could feel the power and intensity with each step. It might sound odd, but it seemed to me that everyone in the room was thinking and breathing slower as though we were transported to a more peaceful and calm place, this seemed odd because just outside the door was the high energy of the city with all it fast pace energy.

While he moved in this slow and steady flowing motion, he seem to hypnotize everyone in the entire room. I sat there wondering how slow can you go and when you go that slow how the world must look. I was hooked and wanted learn more about this Taiji stuff. So, I embarked on my Taiji journey to discover the answer to my question about going slow.

Finding The Rhythm In Taiji

Being a student and teacher of Taiji I have found that there are three key rhythms to Taiji. First, is the normal way of doing Taiji, not to fast not too slow, a steady natural flow of movements leading one form into another like a dance. Secondly, is the little slower version which is more like a Chi Kung exercise. And the third is fast Taiji which is doing the form in a fast pace motions.

I believe that all three phases of Taiji are important to learn to fully understand Taiji and to round out one’s form.

Speed Junkies

When it comes to learning Taiji everyone starts out being way too fast, not only in doing the form, but also in wanting to learn the form. I guess its part of our culture to want to learn and do everything fast, let’s face it, we live in world where fast is the standard on how good something is. From fast food, fast Internet, fast oil change, fast cars, fast weight loss, fast money, fast acting medicine etc… and the faster the better we are told. Our culture seems to be on speed and everyone knows that they should slow down but few can, going slow is not so easy and very hard to do. Too often we are always in hurry to get results.

For this reason the first question that new students always ask is “how long will it take me to learn Taiji”? I have the same answer for the past 29 years “a life time”. Then they say “no really how long will it take and is there any books, tapes, DVD’s I can get so I can learn it faster”, again I tell them the say thing “if you want to learn Taiji it will take a lifetime, if you want to learn the form, it will take about one year for the short form and one to two years to learn the long form”. There is always a look of surprise and confusion in their eyes when I say this and than a look of puzzlement, I just tell them to come to class.

This is also why I often find it amazing and funny when I met people that express to me that they studied Taiji and didn’t get anything out of it, when I press them for how long they study they tell me for six months. I try to tell them Taiji is like water and you are like rock, if it took you this long to become stiff and hard it will take sometime to wear that rock down.

Slowing Down Phase II

I believe the most important phase in Taiji is what I call the phase II in which students practice Taiji in the slowest possible way. In this phase one does Taiji as slow as possible, moving as little as possible and feeling each and every motion. One concentrate on each movement of one’s body and settles into each form of Taiji, so we start just moving our arms up and down very, very, slowly. Then we go from form to form moving as slowly as possible feeling each step, starting from the feet feeling each step to the calf, knee, hip, chest, shoulders, elbows, writs, hands, neck, jaw, face, eyes, top of head. This process can take up to 2-5 minutes just to do one section like “grab the birds tail”. Moving this slowly students can feel the form and relax into it. This also allows students to find the places where they hold there stress and let it go.

This allows them to immerse themselves into “grab the birds tail” and become one with that form. As one moves slowly from one section to the next we natural sink more, breath deeper and relax. One also stops thinking of the next steps and puts all one’s focus on the form they are doing at that very moment, this allows the mind to become clam. When doing Taiji this slow it can take a good 20 to 30 minutes just to do the short form. But, you will find your Taiji change very quickly and have a deeper respect for the form.

Phase II becomes more like Chi Kung and moves one into the part of Taiji that is a moving meditation. I really believe if you practice this way of doing Taiji you will be able to feel the earth moving all around you. While doing Taiji this slowly your form with change and you will experience new level of Taiji and your being will change also. Your life will to slow down also and you see things in a different light. Your reflexes become sharper and your awareness become sharper. I have had students tell me when a something is falling like a cup or dish, all of sudden it seems that it’s moving in slow motion and they are able to catch it before it falls to the floor. They tell me how it seems that everyone is running around so fast and they are calm and see how everything is moving so fast. I once had a student who was a nurse who worked in the ER and since she learned Taiji when there was a problem, everyone was running around going crazy she could see clearly and stay calm and solve the problem, her fellow nurses couldn’t believe how she could stay calm. She told me that she could see it all happening in slow motions, which helped her do her job better.

Once you have practice this way of doing Taiji than you can go back to doing it in it’s normal pace. You will find your Taiji has changed for the better and you will see Taiji in a new way.

Speeding Up Phase III

After doing Taiji at normal pace and than really slow pace, the last aspect is doing Taiji fast. In order to balance out our Taiji it helps to learn Taiji in all difference forms, this includes doing it as fast as possible. We cannot understand Taiji unless we explore it from many difference viewpoints. Just like we would never get on the highway if we only knew how to drive slow, or ride a bike cycle if we only went slow, in fact we would fall over if we went too slow. Sometime we need to push ourselves into a new gear to understand how it feels and how we can use it.

Once we are comfortable doing Taiji at normal speed and slow we will again find a new joy out of going fast. In order to help understand this, just think of doing Taiji if you are fighting one person or many people. Using the form to move from one situation to the next. Using all the different forms to kick, turn, sink down, punch, strike as if we needed to use them on someone or many people. We would never just move slowly if we were being attacked, we would need to move as quickly as possible to defend ourselves. Doing Taiji fast shows us how to use the form in a new way. It helps us understand what the moves are for and how to use them in dynamic way. Just as we need to learn how to move quickly in push hands, we should also practice Taiji fast so we can experience potential benefit of Taiji. Life doesn’t always come at us slowly sometimes we need to react quickly and doing Taiji fast allows us to be ready for those situation. Whether its’ using stepping out of the way, needle to the bottom of the sea, or any of the other movements in Taiji will help us respond to any situation when we need to move quickly. And when we do Taiji fast it looks like a dance and one is turning spinning and move in a very fluid way.

When we combine these three elements of doing Taiji we deepen our knowledge and understanding of Taiji, we take it deeper and find new levels to explore which grounds us in our form and at the same time expands our experience of this special and unique form.

Ralph A. Johnson has been teaching taiji, yoga and meditation for the past 25 years in the New York, Connecticut area. He owns three natural foods stores and has written articles for "Tai Chi Magazine" and "Qi Journal". He currently working on a books about his taiji experience. He is also looking to write a book about how taiji has changed people’s life.

Published in the Autumn 2010 issue of Qi Journal