A Wise Tai Chi Master Once Said We Should Practice the Method Not the Form
January 25, 2021
My grandfather, Henry Gullette died when he was 69 years old. He was an old man when by the time he was 60. He was a very nice old man, but the thing I remember him doing most was sitting on his couch watching TV. In the photo above, he is younger than I am now.
My father, Kenneth Sr. died when he was 61. He was a nice guy, too, maybe the best man I have ever known (his picture is below). My dad had his first heart attack at age 50 and gave up after that. I remember in his fifties he would say, "I'm not going to be around much longer."
It turned out to be true.
Today is my 68th birthday and I am still trying to get better at gongfu. Despite having much more serious health issues than either my father or my grandfather, I still have goals I'm trying to achieve. I'm not as good at the internal arts as I want to be.
There is no way I'm giving up yet. I'm having way too much fun.
What is the internal difference between me, my dad and my grandfather? Why did they get old and give up too early?
Why have so many people over the years told me how good they want to be in martial arts but then they quit after a few lessons? What is the difference between them and the student who stays with it year after year? I'm in my 48th year of studying and practicing and I'm still peeling back layers of the onion, excited by what I find next.
It seems that a lot of people go through the motions of life without fully diving in and persisting, even when there are stretches when it isn't much fun.
I have a martial artist friend named John Morrow who turned 69 years old on January 6. Every year, I say to him, "I hope I'm as good as you when I'm your age."
Every year he replies, "You better get busy." Hahaha. Real funny, John.
What You Are Practicing
I have forgotten who said this, but it might have been one of Chen Fake's students, Feng Zhiqiang. He said we should practice "method, not form."
In the beginning, when we learn a form, we are trying to memorize the movements. Then, we are trying to memorize the movements in order so we can do the form from beginning to end. It takes a lot of work to remember a complete form.
But after we get the movements down and we can do a form from beginning to end, we must immediately force ourselves to go to the next level.
What you should be practicing is not the form but the method.
Every style of martial arts has its own "shen fa," or "body method." The form is only a way to practice the body method.
In the style of Xingyi that I teach, body methods include taking ground, alternating relaxation and power, maintaining intent, ground path, peng jin, dantien rotation and whole-body movement, among others. The mindset of Xingyi is to drive through the opponent. As they might say in Cobra Kai, "No mercy."
When practicing a Chen Taiji form, you should work in each movement to develop an "alive" style of moving that is relaxed but with internal strength that makes it "iron wrapped in cotton." You should make good use of the kua, dantien rotation, ground path, peng jin, whole-body movement and the spiraling power of silk-reeling, among others. The mindset of Taiji is to yield and overcome, bend but not break, maintain your structure and hide your own center from your opponent while you find his center and put him down.
In Bagua, your body method includes mud-stepping, circle-walking and a lot of the mechanics of Taiji, including an alive, spiraling quality in your movement that is relaxed but with strength underneath. But even your circle-walking has its own unique qualities as your foot skims across the ground and you keep your weight on the rear leg. The mindset of Bagua is to become like a spinning wire ball. If your opponent gets too close, he will be caught up in the spinning wire ball and thrown out in all directions.
When I studied Yang style Tai Chi, I moved in a very different way than I do in Chen style. It was slow and relaxed but the body was not "alive." There was no ground. There was no peng. There was no kua. I was taught a ridiculous way of silk-reeling that did not include spiraling movement in the body at all. My teacher told us to "think about Qi spiraling from our foot to our hands."
When I first encountered Chen style, a lightbulb went on in my head. The body method was so different, I knew instantly that it was a higher quality. But even within Chen style there are different body methods, depending on the teacher.
Sometimes, you can almost be paralyzed by thinking of all the body mechanics that make up the body method in one art. But once you learn the movements of a form, you should spend the next number of years learning how to apply all the mechanics to each movement. You develop skill in the body method.
I will practice a form and sometimes focus on just one thing, such as dantien rotation. The next time, I'll try to maintain the same dantien rotation but I'll focus on how the Mingmen (lower back) bows and unbows as the dantien rotates.
Or I'll do a form and focus mostly on opening and closing the kua. Next, I might focus on the Bai Hui point at the top of the head and try to keep my head lifted instead of letting it drop forward. Another time, I might focus on maintaining peng jin, or not collapsing my knees.
As we peel back the layers of the onion, practicing the body method helps us get deeper and deeper into it. The quality of your art is in the body method.
As I tell my students, "Don't allow yourself to just go through the motions when you practice. You won't perform with the proper body method if you don't practice that way."
My dad said he wasn't going to be around much longer. It turns out that his prediction came true and he died at 61. Now, at 68, I want to get better at the internal arts. Can I make it come true?
We can both do it if we work at it.