I was turned on to the idea of writing more from the perspective of personal experience by an article at Martial Development a blog I enjoy reading.
As a taiji enthusiast I focus on work other than forms. I do lots of moves from forms, but don't endorse any single form or even hold the opinion that forms are ideal for practice of taiji.
In preparation for a series of articles on Taiji people who I find inspiring I was able to speak with one of my favorite taiji enthusiasts, Scott M Rodell of the GRTC. In our conversation he espoused a view that one of the keys to success is to learn a move, typically from a form, practice it slow and then learn to speed it up and use it with proper force and then to work on the timing of it. It seems to me this is the most practical way to develop real skill. In my experience a focus on this type of training can be very hard when you are focused on doing a form. Rejecting a form outright would be naive, however the real content in the form would appear to be the blocks or bricks it is made of so to speak, these are those techniques that can be practiced and learned properly.
My own practice consists of taking pieces of form and working on them. I focus primarily upon grasp the sparrows tail, this set of movement is hands down my favorite sequence in the form. Much of my practice of form stuff consists of stuff from the form put together in a different way. For example yesterday I was having fun with snake creeps down moving directly into a low shoulder. This is not in the form as a sequence, but all of the involved moves are in the form and in my experience every move in the form can lead to another move.
Which leads me to my observations about the energies of the form.
In my experience the yang public form is remarkably simple and straightforward in it's energies. The primary form I draw from was passed down through Chen Wei-ming to reach me. My teacher of the moves of this form, and the man who gave me my first initiation into how taiji feels is Art Barret. I won't tell you he is some super duper master who can shoot chi bolts from his finger, rather he is just a human being who has been practicing various aspects of taijiquan for about 30 years now. I have found working with him to be inspiring.
As I was mentioning, I find the moves of taiji to be remarkable straightforward, however they require a great deal of practice. Understanding them is not enough, but it is important to be able to get the most out of practice. In my experience practicing these energies in various combinations is what the form is all about, and this is something we can realize to the extent that we can create our own spontaneous forms from the basic building blocks we have mastered through diligent practice. I have noted that students of the old Yangs often differ in the forms they practice. I hope this has been illustrated well in this Blog, to me it is clear that that the Yangs were not concerned with choreography so much as skill.
I was told recently by one skilled taijiquan enthusiast and instructor that practice matters more than transmission to a large degree. To paraphrase what he said; if you are more concerned with the minor details of how your instructor told you to do a move 30 years ago, than you are with practical application practice like push hands and 2 man drills, then your skill is going to suffer. In this we can examine the old adage of relaxation and realize that it can apply just as much to the mind as to the body in taijiquan.
I've learned to read forms of various arts and see past the details to the real content. The exact position of the feet and hands, when the hand turns over etc, these things are trivial compared to the real content. This is why teachers often move in a way that students don't, the students often see the goal as to learn to imitate the moves in an exact manner, however the goal seems to be more about learning the energies behind the moves than learning any orthodox technique. Because of this I find it to be a very shallow and often meaningless thing to critisize the appearance of a form and I know that the eye cannot pick up the real content of taijiquan.
It is my opinion that there are many good forms out there for taiji. Short or long, 2 man or 1, open hand or weapons, easy or hard, they are all excellent if you approach them right and they are all capable of becoming an obstacle to skill if you approach them wrong. I would endeavor to emphasize that learning the choreography is secondary to learning the energies. In many cases people fail to learn the energies but they learn the choreography quite well, however then they practice the moves incorrectly because they do not understand. That is because the energies lead to understanding of the form, but I believe the form does not lead to understanding of the energies. This is because as was mentioned earlier, the way to skill is through practicing the moves in a progressive way, speeding them up and working with them at real timing, this is done one energy and move at a time. It is not done through the form, I think teachers who focus on forms above other types of practice should be rejected by all of those who want to develop taiji skill.
The other day I was practicing single whip on a tree and a man asked me what belt I was working towards.
It occurred to me how alien his assumption may be to my way of thinking, after all I am not in a school, I have no formal teacher, and I do not desire a rank, rather I seek to obtain skill that I can recognize. Why would I require a formal setting or even seek one out then? I was not trying to achieve a belt, but my goal was to strike the tree properly, there was no scheme or plan related to this and each blow was another goal in this series. I see the entire world as my training place and class is always in session. I use this to practice endlessly, and what I practice is not a form, but the energies of the form. Taiji then becomes a way of life, and not just in a physical sense, but in a mental sense, and that is my personal experience.