I know a Tai Chi teacher who… Oh, sorry. I don’t know him. I know about him and I have met him briefly. I won’t mention any name, but he teaches the short 25 movements form. Only this form and one or two basic push hands drills. When someone asks him how you learn to fight in Tai Chi, he just says that fighting skills comes with time through form practice. Many teachers says “fighting comes from the form.” So most people just practice forms, drills, jibengong standing meditation and other solo exercises.
I’ve heard so many people who practice form, form and form. They practice one or two or three or even more hours of Tai Chi solo practice exercises everyday. Some people I meet says that their goal is to spend so and so many hours of Tai chi practice everyday. Spending a lot of time practicing and developing your Tai Chi as well as yourself is obviously a good thing. But you should not confuse this practice with fighting skills. Even if those people who says that fighting comes from the form have practiced for thirty plus years, most of them still get stiff and and use strength when I meet them in free push hands practice. They show absolutely no Tai Chi skills.
Li Yaxuan (Yang Chengfu’s most acclaimed student) wrote:
(Scott Meredith translation)
Li Yaxuan believed that it’s essential to practice against others, testing and developing your skill against others. You can’t develop fighting skills in your own room by yourself. You can’t learn following skills, like adapting to the opponent’s structure or learn to listen to his energy from solo practice.
Tai Chi is meant to use against someone else. It’s meant to be used as self-defence and fighting. Think of Tai Chi Chuan the same way as you learn to use a tool or an instrument. You can’t learn to be good at bowling without practicing with the bowling ball. All movements you perform in the thin air means nothing compared to holding that ball and use it. The same thing goes for learning to play the violin or the piano. You must really practice with the instrument to become good.
You learn the correct balance and alignment not when you practice form without any martial practice. You learn these qualities when you meet the opponent’s pressure, when you evade from a punch or try a takedown against him. It’s when you practice push hands and sparring you should practice your Tai Chi skills. Practice following and leading against your partner. Learn to handle a push or leading away pressure from your practicing partner. The knowledge you attain from push hands and applications practice is what you should take into your forms, drills and other solo practice. My teacher said that most people practice form as they were statues. But Tai Chi should be a functional form. Practicing a Tai Chi form is not like practicing like you are a statue. It’s like practicing as you were a filled tea pot. A statue just have a stationary weight. But a Tai Chi form should have a functional weight, form and balance. The correct function and balance is what you learn from push hands and applications practice. Then you take that knowledge and fill the form with it. If you don’t have this knowledge to put in the form, practicing your form and your drills will be like carrying around an empty bag. Then you don’t use it for the purpose it was created for.
Practice your forms, drills, meditation, jibengong and solo practice. But don’t believe that this will help you even slightly to apply your movements correctly in push hands or fighting. You need practice push hands again and again, both drills and free push hands against many different people. You need to test applications and combat methods against resisting partners. Only when you can understand how to be insubstantial and formless in different formats of practice and in different competition formats, and have succeeded to keep your Tai Chi body and your Tai Chi mind dealing with many different people in different situations, you can claim to have reached a point where you can truly say that you know how use your Tai Chi Chuan for real.
Also read about how to gradually build Tai Chi combat skills from pressure and testing and what it is like fighting with Tai Chi for real.