How Should I Practice and What?Good question!! I'm glad you asked. And the truth of it is there is no one answer. If you're a long time student, you pretty much know what you need or want to work on but as a beginner, it is often a bit of a mystery. There you are, you've just completed your first class and depending on your teacher, you may not even have learned any of the postures in the form, yet! Here's what I tell all my beginning students:
"Give me 5 minutes a day. That's all I ask. 5 minutes."
Whoaaaa!! How can I learn Tai Chi if I only practice 5 minutes a day?? What benefits can I get from only practicing 5 minutes a day?! Must not be that important if he's only asking for 5 minutes.
That couldn't be further from the truth!!
What you need to do is to start to incorporate it into your everyday routine so that it becomes a habit. This is more difficult than it sounds. In my experience, the reason many students stop doing T'ai Chi is because they were never able to get into the habit of practicing. But if you start with just 5 minutes a day, 3-5 days a week, after a few weeks, you'll find yourself practicing a couple of minutes more. And that's a good thing. Now it's in your routine, it's a habit and you're more likely to improve and learn your forms. And it's a lot easier to find 5 minutes a day than it is to try to set aside 15-30 minutes. Especially if your life is as busy as mine!!
And let's take it a step further, so to speak. Once you know a simple form like Yang style 24-form, how long does it take to do it from start to finish.....Just 5-10 minutes depending on just how fast or slow you do it. And if that's all you do - Yang style 24, everyday - you'll get a significant amount of benefits, both mental and physical. That's why it's such a popular form! Only takes 5 minutes or so to do and the payoff is terrific!!
Ok, that's enough about how you should practice. Now let's talk about "what should I practice?" Of course your teacher will tell you what to practice, and that's usually the last thing they taught you! But personally, I think anything you can remember from your classes is what you should practice. Or if you have a weakness in a particular part of doing Tai Chi, for instance, foot placement during bow stance, which we talked about in a previous article on this blog. And this brings up another less verbalized question that students have: When am I actually doing Tai Chi?
I always take a few moments with new students to let them know that "doing Tai Chi" is not about completing a form from beginning to end but rather is practicing whatever piece of Tai Chi you are working on at that moment. If what you practice is the opening sequence and work on using your Tan Tien to transfer your weight properly to acheive good body position, alignment and foot placement, you are doing as much Tai Chi as someone who is doing a form from beginning to end. Don't short change yourself by thinking that if you don't know a whole form you aren't really practicing Tai Chi yet. Nothing could be further from the truth! It is not the what that you practice but the intention and awareness that you bring to your practice that transforms it from just casually moving your body to actually doing Tai Chi. I often do Tai Chi when I'm waiting for a bus. I just stand there and conciously align my body and practice shifting weight from one foot to the next. Try it the next time you're waiting for a bus or in a line at the grocery store. No one will know you are actually practicing Tai Chi because most people are constantly shifting their weight and moving around when they're in a queue. They just don't bring the awareness aspect into play.
How Long Will It Take Me to Learn the Form?I think now you can see how the 2 questions are related. Obviously, the more you practice, the quicker and better you'll learn the form. But this is also related to how the form is being taught.
There are 2 common modern styles of teaching forms that I have encountered. They both have advantages and disadvantages and I have learned from teachers that used one or the other as their method for instruction. The first method is to go through the whole form every class - calling out each move with directions as to how to do it - while students of all levels follow along as best they can. Then after going through the form, the instructor will work in depth on one form or set of movements to help students understand them better.
The second method is to introduce a new movement each class. In this method, the class starts off reviewing the form with the instructor up to the movement learned in the previous class. Then questions from students and problems with performance as noted by the instructor are worked on. After a while, the next move in the form is then introduced, with the rest of the class session being devoted to it's instruction. In this method, you're never quite sure how far along in learning the form you are but you can assume that if it's a 24 posture form, it's going to take you at least 24, and more likely 30 weeks to learn the form. That's because it is always necessary to take a week now and then to just work on the form up to where the students have progressed. This also gives students that have missed an occasional class a chance to catch up to where everyone else is.
So how long will it take you to learn a form via the first method? Probably about the same amount of time as by the second method! Unless..... you are a very dedicated student, who practices hard (more than 5 minutes a day!), and has a talent and a good memory for body movement patterns. Those students are rare so don't worry about them. They'll be your teachers, soon!!
Ok, enough reading about Tai Chi for now. Go practice for 5 minutes!!