In traditional Tai Chi Chuan there’s a saying that you need to begin learning large movements first and small movements later. But what does it really mean with large and small movements? And how are those different movements taught in practical practice?
This saying, about learning big first and small later, is generally said by many, but is also something that is taught and practiced by only a few. Sadly, this saying has become more of a kind of catch phrase and not always something that is put in a practical curriculum of learning and teaching. What is large and what is small is often not something perfectly understood. Sometimes the students might develop what should be developed and sometimes not. As always when things become fussy, the students own talent and wish to understand, plays a big role in the individual’s development.
What is Large movements / Large Frame in Tai Chi Chuan?
Large movements or Large frame is usually the first, and foremost basic method taught in the traditional Yang, Chen and Wu (Jianhou) styles. Many of the schools within these styles do not go beyond Large Frame and do not teach smaller frames or other frame variations.
However, there’s often a discrepancy about the meaning of what Large Frame actually is. Personally I regard what is usually called medium frame in Yang and Large frame in Wu (Jianhou) styles as Large frame. What is taught as Large frame in modern Tai Chi Chuan, what is often seen in short form variations, I consider as something else. The thing is that if movements become too large, as what is often seen nowadays, the roundness of structure and the integrity of alignment all becomes lost. The result is a transition from Tai Chi Chuan to merely Qigong, or rather a quite bad form of qigong, based on shapes that lack balance and without any kind of practical use. So real Large frame should be movements that are big and bold. But not stretched, lazy, limb driven movements without practical purpose.
Why does Large Frame matter?
The idea of Big movements is not for the sake of just doing something big. Instead this is an issue of teaching Jin. In the internal martial arts we learn to use skilled strength, or Jin instead of the common strength based on muscular tension. In the internal arts it is said that: “Strength comes from the muscles, Jin comes from. The sinews.”
But then, what does it means, that Jin comes from the sinews? It means that the joints must be loose and have the freedom of mobility. Large frame movements teach a great range of joint movement. From large frame we study and learn how to stretch the whole body all the way from the feet through from the core, and out to the fingertips. Whole body stretching, though controlled and not too large, it is round, like spiraling movement through the whole body.
The joints become loose and movable. Through this kind of practice, moving with whole body connection using wide, generous stances, while making full use of every part of the body, also builds a certain strength. The result from a long time perspective of practice means for the practitioner that he be maintaining good health.
Large Frame means developing Changjin, or “Long Energy”
Except for learning a more full use of the body through large frame practice, the special type of Jin though, that will be developed more than any other type of Jin from , is Changjin, “long energy”, something crucial for Tai Chi push hands and pushing skills. This Jin is what gives the Tai Chi practitioner a good tossing ability as well as a deep, penetrating kind of power.
What is Tai Chi Small frame Practice?
Small frame is usually learned after big frame. Chen style has Small Frame, some people believe that this form is older than the other forms taught today. Wu (Hao/Wu Yuxiang) style is based on Chen small frame and Sun style is also a small frame style and derived directly from Wu. Yang Style has large, medium and small frame practice. There is also a fast frame taught in some non Yang Chengfu schools that is also a sort of small frame. As for my own knowledge, Wu (Jianquan), also known as large frame Wu or “leaning Wu” style, has no small frame practice.
The obvious similarity between these different small frame schools is obviously that they focus on smaller movements, smaller circles. They also have a higher, more upright posture and a different footwork, often based on following steps or “huobu”, lively stepping. The higher stances means that they are less demanding for the legs and knees compared to large frame practice which is an advantage for elderly people or those who have developed knee practice. Thus small frame Tai Chi practice is in many ways ideal practice for older people in general.
Mostly Small frame is regarded as for more advanced students only, and sometimes even kept for indoor students only. This is probably the reason why Small frame Tai Chi practice is rather unknown practice except for the two outspokenly small frame styles of Wu/Hao and Sun.
Small frame means Martial frame?
Many regard small frame as “more martial” than large frame. This has some truth to it. When you fight for real, you need to be able to do movements smaller, with angles and leverage smaller than in practice. Real fighting will be faster, more direct, more diffuse and you will be able to change very fast. From this POV, small frame is crucial for developing martial Jin. In small frame you need to have the same body connection and stretch the movements from the core in the same way as in Large Frame practice. The whole body movement and freedom of joint movement from large frame are preserved. But in small frame, spiraling movement becomes more obvious and pronounced, and spinal movement and waist mobility become more important.
The importance of Connected Structure in small frame practice.
What is especially developed in Chen and Wu styles small frame practice is not really the opposite of Changjin, which would be duanjin or “short energy”. Instead what is practiced is a very exact frame with precise angles. This precision will teach the practitioner where the angles of the shapes are as strong as possible, and how to move and change shapes while keeping a naturally strong structure.
To learn this type of structural integrity, large frame should always be taught first as the open, stretching quality of the large frame must be preserved in the small frame connected structure. To get a sense of what I mean, you can try stretching your arms out to the sides, and then while still trying to keep on stretching, round the arms and point the palms towards each other. You will probably be quite tense, and what should be achieved is a more relaxed and natural feeling.
Some Yang schools seem to have preserved the idea of a precise, naturally strong structure in their small frames practice. But Sun style as it is usually and most commonly practiced as in the Sun Jianyun lineage has lost the roundness of angles that is the main idea of posture of the Wu style that Sun was derived from. Also, most Wu schools start with teaching medium and even large frame just as Yang and Chen schools. But Sun style has no medium or large frame practice. Instead it is usually combined with Baguazhang and Xingyiquan which can become a compensation for the lack of Tai Chi large frame practice. However, as I myself has studied Sun style for many years, I would recommend people who want to learn Sun style to also study some traditional Yang, Chen or Wu (Jianquan) Tai Chi Chuan.
In general, large movements practice is the basis of and beginning to understand real Tai Chi Jin. To understand what small frame truly means and what types of Jin that can be developed from small frame practice, you need to first understand large or medium frame.