This post is a translated summary of a Chinese article named 四个步骤，从太极操通向太极拳！
In order to improve your skills in Tai Chi, it is essential to know whether you are practicing Tai Chi Exercise (Tai Chi for health) or Tai Chi Quan (Tai Chi with Martial Spirit). Both are good for the body, and indeed every Tai Chi Quan practitioner had to go through the ‘Tai Chi as exercise’ stage when first learning the movements.
The reasons for differentiating between Tai Chi Quan and Tai Chi Exercise are so that a practitioners can know what they are practicing, what level they are at, and how to achieve higher levels. However, it is not easy to tell the difference between the two. This is because Tai Chi Exercise shares a lot of the principles with Tai Chi Quan (e.g. keeping spinal alignment, sinking shoulders and elbows, containing the chest and raising the back, etc), in addition to having the same Tai Chi movements.
Tai Chi Quan is different to Tai Chi Exercise in the following:
- Tai Chi Quan is a martial art. Every movement is infused with the idea of offense and defense.
- Tai Chi Quan emphases on Yi (Intention) more than outward appearance. This is in contrast to using muscles and strength to perform Tai Chi movements. To use mind intent and not strength is explained as one of the Ten Guiding Principles of Yang Chengfu.
- No movements of arms/hands in Tai Chi Quan. This is a defining principle that differentiates Tai Chi Quan from Tai Chi Exercise, and is also the key to improve your skills. ‘Not moving the hands’ means not moving them in isolation, or as initiation of a movement. Every movement should start from the feet, channeled through the legs into the waist, which then directs the energy for manifestation in the arms/hands (see Tai Chi and the Car analogy).
- Tai Chi Push Hands is the path towards higher level skills. It is said that practitioners who learn push hands do not necessarily achieve high levels; but practitioners who do not learn push hands will never get to higher levels. Push Hands practice will teach you to know yourself, and know your partner. It is through this exchange that your nervous system will learn how to neutralize a bigger force with a smaller force, while destabilizing your partner and not losing your own equilibrium.