The Tai Chi Chuan's Solo Form

Today, there are many styles of Tai Chi Chuan and no one practitioner practices the Solo Form the same way. This is true even among the Yang Family Members. Many students have wondered why.

What is the correct way to practice the Solo Form?
In the Tai Chi Chuan System, the Solo Form is a series of physical bare hand movements to work to maneuver and fine tune the body. Depending on the practitioner's intention, a movement can be executed in many different ways to achieve different results. Thus, it is said that Tai Chi Chuan is a multiple functions art.

It is also said in the Tai Chi Chuan Classics that the Solo Form is for the body and Push Hand exercises are for the usage. The body is the control center of the four limbs' movements. It is the key to unify all physical movement. Better coordination, execution of a powerful strike, flexibility, balance, improved vitality, improved physical endurance and mobility are some of the essential results of body utilization.

There are many disciplines to train the body to achieve these results. In Tai Chi Chuan, "Jia" refers to family, style and frame. We often read this in association with "Lao Jia" and "Xian Jia" in Tai Chi Chuan books. The word "Lao" refers to old or tradition and "Xian" refers to new and contemporary. When people say that Yang Lao Sim practiced the "Lao Jia", this meant that he practiced the traditional 108 movement Solo Form by Zhang San Feng whose emphasis was more on martial art usage than the styles commonly seen today.

Three levels in martial art skills
Generally, martial arts skill is divided into three levels- the beginner's level, the immediate level and the advance level.

The beginner's level refers to the stage when one learns to grasp the basics or fundamentals. The student trains to develop some skill with the eyes, hands, feet, body and is acquiring some benefit in health. This is the foundation or the stage of developing the body.

The intermediate level is reached when the student has had several years of practice. He has a strong foundation. The eyes, hands, stepping and internal substances act together. This is the enlightenment stage or the stage of developing the intent.

The advanced level is reached when one has several decades of practice. The practitioner has spent a great deal of time in search of the application of each movement. All the movements are done with ease, the hands move like lightening, stepping is quick like wind and the eyes shine like a shooting star. When the intent wants to move, the whole body moves. This is the stage of developing the spirit.

a. Beginning Level
This is the stage of physical practice. It is the stage to practice the basics in martial art training. The main characteristic of this is that one practices the basics such as hands, legs, waist and the beginner's hands forms or weapons. The purpose is to build a solid foundation for more advanced training later. A student must remember three things here to be successful: serious, persistence and perseverance. This stage is also known as the body development. It is so because most of the time the student works on the basic movement of the hands, feet, waist, body and standing to prepare and build up the body for more difficult movement later.

b. Intermediate Level
After one has mastered the fundamental, one will go onto the next step of intent development. The difference between body development and intent development is that body development involves many maneuvers to fine tune the body and following all the rules and regulations described in The Tai Chi Chuan Classics. While intent development involves practical application and following the rules and regulations but at the same time find ways to stretch out the perimeter of these rules and regulations. Therefore, it is said that body development is working on the "gong" or internal power development component and intent development is working on the "chee" or technique component. As a complete system of martial art, a style or system must have both components to train the student's skills. There is a saying that it is not enough just to have "chee," one must have "gong" as well. When one has "gong", the strike will be so powerful that the opponent will be scared to death.

Among the martial art practitioners who understand the relationship of gong and chee, they said "The fist relies on chee, the chee relies on gong, and the gong relies on chee." From this, one can see that in order to be successful as a martial artist, one must find the solution to develop both the "gong" and "chee".

c. Advanced Level
In order to advance to a higher level, one must begin the spiritual training. From spiritual training, one will develop a skill so profound that no word can correctly describe it. The Tai Chi Chuan Classics refer to this stage in the following statements, "No feathers can added and no fly can land", and "Nobody know me, I alone know others." What is the difference between spiritual development and intent development? Spiritual development is the continuation of intent development. The essential of spiritual development is that the brain will unconsciously practice the Solo Form all the time so that all responses will become a natural reflex whenever it faces danger. This is also known as an inborn ability. A practitioner develops the nervous system to the peak of sensitivity so that an automatic response occurs without any conscious thought.

3 Frames of The Yang Styles of Tai Chi Chuan
For training in Tai Chi Chuan as a martial art, the Yang Family Members developed the 108 Lao Jia Solo Form into three major styles, each with its own distinguishing characteristics to arm the practitioner for combat. Yang Cheng Fu developed the famous "Large Frame" Style. The objective of this style is to stretch the body's tendons, ligaments and develop the flexibility of all the joints so that it is able to function in martial art's high demanded. Large refers to the large degree of circular motion in each movement. Large frame style emphasizes the find tuning and conditioning of the body's joints. Therefore, it is also known as the "enter the door style" or a style for the beginner.

Yang Jian Hou developed the "Medium Frame" Style. The objective of this style is for martial usage. The emphasis is on martial technique. he divided a movement into many smaller sub-movements so that it is more effective in offense and defense. Medium refers to the degree of circular motion that involve the body's joints not large as in large frame and not too small as in small frame. It is the distand that one is able to quickly execute an offensive or a defensive maneuver. Therefore, medium frame is also known as an application style.

Yang Pan Hou developed the "Small Frame" style. The objective of this style is on practicing the chi and spirit. Small refers to the small degree of circular motion in each movement. The circle is so small that most of the movement is based on the rotation of the waist and coiling the body. The emphasis is on the chi and spirit, not the physical. Therefore, it is known as an advanced style and it is generally practiced among senior and experienced practitioners.

The multiple disciplines in Solo Form
Tai Chi Chuan's Solo Form can be practiced by people of all ages and physical conditions. It is based on the objectives of the practitioners. Generally, practice of the Solo Form is divided into four groups based on the objectives and disciplines. This is similar to the four seasons in a year where all living things grow in a complete life cycle (birth, growth, maturity and death). Since Tai Chi Chuan is a multiple functions art, one must practice the Solo Form accordingly to achieve all functions. A practitioner who inherits correct transmission generally goes through four groups of Tai Chi Chuan practice to maximize its benefits. This is why many practitioners are still able to execute a powerful strike in their senior age.

We know that Spring is a time for planting seed and life begins. In Tai Chi Chuan training, this is the time to develop strong fundamentals. The objective of the Solo Form at this time will be based on how to improve these fundamentals. Summer is the time for growth. In Tai Chi Chuan training, this is the time for development and acquisition of skills. Autumn is the time for harvest. In Tai Chi Chuan training, this is the time for skill maturation and benefit. Winter is the time for storage. In Tai Chi Chuan training, this is the time for preservation of chi to maintain good health. From this, we can see that Tai Chi Chuan develops and experiences differently at different times of a practitioner's life. One should practice the Solo Form accordingly. A successful practitioner begins with the physical to build strong fundamentals and advance into the spiritual training of the intent in a later date. This is similar to education, one begins with the primary school, moves onto secondary school and then college knowledge in a progressive manner.

Four groups of practice

A. Spring
This is the beginning. The emphasis is on the Tai Chi Chuan's fundamentals. Since a fruitful result is based on a strong foundation, there are many techniques developed over the years to practice the Solo Form to establish a strong foundation. Like a tall building, Tai Chi Chuan training begins with a strong foundation. Otherwise, the building will collapse.

  1. Wu Tu Nan pointed out that when he learned from Yang Sau Hou, Yang made him pause in each component of the movement for a few minutes during each Solo Form practice. Wu took more than one hour to completed one Solo Form practice. This technique will help the practitioner correctly executing each movement as well as building a strong foundation.
  2. The second technique is stationary exercise or practicing the Solo Form's each movement individually and separately in the same space. In today's limited space environment, this is an excellent technique to work with.
  3. The third technique is to strengthen the leg by lifting the leg up in either stepping forward or backward motion. Besides building the strong standing leg, this technique also will develop the kicking technique on the second leg.
  4. The fourth technique is to utilize the waist rotation. To better understand the importance of the waist in a movement, do not move the hands so that the waist rotation alone will be visible. Later, apply this technique to the shoulders and the elbows.
  5. The fifth technique is to practice the large frame by stretching the body, ligaments and joints for flexibility and increase the size of the circular motion in each movement.

B. Summer
This stage is the continuation of the development or acquisition of skills. In here, one can practice the Solo Form physically more challenging as a martial art to further develop the body to expect the unexpected in a combat environment.
  1. The first technique is to break down the Solo Form movement into each individual movement and practice the left side as well as the right side according to its many martial applications.
  2. The second technique is to practice the medium frame which divides each movement into many smaller parts and remain connected in the Solo Form. This division will create many foldings (repeating) motion which act as storage and release of power and result in many hands techniques.
  3. The third technique is to practice the Solo Form on both sides for coordination and balance.
  4. The fourth technique is to practice the Solo Form with speed and power to improve the body's endurance, mobility and ability to discharge power.

C. Autumn
This is the stage of maturation. After one has gone through all the techniques previously described, one is expected to be skillful in Tai Chi Chuan. Each member of the Yang Family taught different styles of the Solo Form because their personalities and the society they lived in were different at their time. However, this does not mean that they did not practice or know the many disciplines and styles. Depending on the personality, physical condition and inclination, a practitioner can practice the three disciplines of the small, medium and large frames.

D. Winter
When we said a person is aging, this means his organs are not functioning as well as they used to in his prime. It takes a longer time for him to recover from vigorous activity. Therefore, the practice should not emphasize the physical, which is a process of spending chi, rather it should be on the process of preserving the chi and spirit to maintain good health. At this time, one is not expected to practice the Solo Form as described in the Spring and Summer. Rather, one is expected to preserve all energy and chi acquired when he was in his youth. Therefore, one should practice the Solo Form with less movement to preserve energy. As this time, many experienced practitioners practice the following techniques to maintain good health.

  1. The first technique is to practice the small frame. A Solo Form with less physical challenge.
  2. The second technique is practice the Solo Form mentally. In other word, one meditates on the Solo Form. This does not require any space. Therefore, it can be done at anytime.
There are many ways of practicing the Solo Form, but the sequence, principles, concepts and philosophy remain the same. The significant difference is in the objectives and the execution of each movement. A practitioner must focus on one method before practice and adhere to this method throughout the practice session. From a martial art point of view, a practitioner must practice different ways to prepare the body to expect the unexpected in a combat environment. Yeung Sau Chung said "The practice has to be alive! You have to practice the Solo Form with lightness, heaviness, softness, hardness, fastness, slowness, big circle, medium circle and small circle. If the Solo Form practice concentrating on 'hardness', the chi will come up from the dantien to the four limbs. If the practice concentrating on 'softness', the chi will return to the dantien. Hardness without softness is not enough strength. Softness without hardness is not enough circular motion. A movement with a fast component without a slow component is not considered as having control. A slow motion without a fast component indicates that the practitioner's skill is not very high. Hardness does not mean stiff and softness does not mean weak. Strike fast but not confused. Strike slow but not empty. This is the correct execution."

From a health exercise point of view, a practitioner who selects one discipline according to his health condition will do the job, for we know that any physical activity will improve body endurance. However, we also know that people generally are not satisfied with what they have. A new goal and discipline progressively to build a strong body, maintain interesting and maintain good health.

Article By Vincent Chu
Copyright © V. Chu. All rights reserved.