Should you learn a shorter or a longer Tai Chi form? What is best to start with? Longer forms can be 88, 108 or 120 movements or even longer, depending on how you count the individual movements. Cheng Man Ching’s form is 37 movements long and the modern short Yang or “Beijing form” is merely 24 movements long.
So what is best to start with? A long Tai Chi form or a shorter one? Some schools have a strict curriculum on how things should be taught and in what order. Some schools only teach one form. To make a statement on this topic might be viewed as dismissing some schools. But I think it’s more about what you want to learn, what kind of focus you have in your practice. But on the other hand, if you ask this question or is interested in my answer, you might not yet know what you should, or even can, focus on.
Whatever you can find is better might be a proper answer. Or maybe it’s just better to find a good teacher regardless what you are taught. However, in my own classes and as a teacher, I have struggled to find a good way to teach Tai Chi. All of my teachers taught in very different ways, and I know yet others who teaches Tai Chi differently. There’s no simple answer to this question.
I’ve tested different ways. The first times I taught a class, I started with the long Yang (Yang Cheng Fu) Tai Chi Form. Years later when I started a new class I tested teaching a short yang form first, and then moved on to teaching the long Sun style Tai Chi form. I know that many teachers prefer to teach a short form first. For Yang style, it’s either the 24 or 10 movements forms. Then later they go on teaching a long form, so I thought that I should try this myself.
The idea is that the student could find it somewhat rewarding to actually finish something within the first six few months instead of spending two or three years learning one single form. But I wasn’t satisfied with this method. Not at all. I found it repetitive and a waste of time. If you want to teach a form, start with the long form first. This is my own recommendation.
But the issue is not if a form should be short or long. Length has nothing to do with the qualities learned in Tai Chi Chuan. Over the years, I haven’t been very satisfied over the way I taught and not how I structured a curriculum. But it hasn’t much to do with what form to teach or when. The main idea to focus on as a teacher should not be about teaching your students to remember movements. It should be about body method. How to teach body method and body movement, is the really tricky part.
In later years, even though I hardly teach nowadays, I have stopped teaching forms, longer and shorter. Maybe when a student has gained some level of understanding of body movement I might teach one. My own method focuses on Jibengong, or foundation exercises, as well as single movements and short drills. And then there are plenty of partner work as applications and push hands.
So to answer about what is best to start with, a longer or shorter form? I guess that my point is that it doesn’t matter very much. It’s your own understanding of how to move and how to understand basic principles that matter. You see, a Tai Chi shenfa, or Tai Chi body method, isn’t something that comes naturally by learning movements. You need a teacher that can teach you body movement, and teach you how you practice a certain quality of body movement. Building up a body method, or shenfa, takes a whole lot of time. Focusing on the right things and not wasting time on superficial things is important. Form is not superficial, that is not what I mean. Form practice is important and helps you to deepen your understanding. But in my own opinion you need that basic understanding first and you need to practice in a way so that you build up your body method in a certain way.
Another thing about form practice, and Tai Chi in general, is that I don’t always agree with how principles are usually taught and understood. I do believe that rules are mostly taught too dogmatic in Tai Chi, too strict, and often the teacher misses the point about what is important or not. Forms often becomes very strict and the students learns rules, and to prohibit the body from “wrong” type of movement, instead of nurturing a type of body that has freedom, and with freedom of movement.
With my own methods, focusing on what I do and teaching my Tai Chi body method, I can focus my exercises on body awareness and teach a student how to feel and understand what the body wants. I want the practitioner understand a certain precision of movement, but at the some time nurture freedom of movement, spontaneity and creativity. This is what I consider the “correct” way to teach and learn Tai Chi, regardless if a practitioner trains through stances, drills or forms. Mindless repetition of movements is the very last thing I would want my students to spend their time on.