Practicing the Form

The names of the moves in tai chi chien are not as consistent and universal as the names in Yang style tai chi chaun, although some are romantic or exotic, e.g., “Bird Seeking Lodging Flies Into Forest,” and “Biggest Star in the Big Dipper.” Many teachers prefer to use physical descriptions for each move e.g., “Raise knee and windmill chop,” or “Backward step and inverted thrust”.

Straight sword practitioner Dan McGrath makes a few precautionary points about tai chi chien. He cautions students to keep the sword hand loose, taking care at the same time not to lose control. He suggests the student concentrate on passing chi into the sword and stresses that good tai chi practices, such as correct breathing and keeping the elbows low and the spine straight, should be carefully observed while practicing the 32 sword form.

As we learned the sword form, our class experienced many familiar challenges. Each new set of moves seemed confusing. Our instructor broke each move down and stepped us carefully through the parts. Ah, we had it, only to lose it later in the week during our individual practice sessions.

Class members purchased copies of Sifu Nick Gracinen’s 32 sword form instructional video, and as we practiced at home with our eyes on our TV screens, we contorted into very un-tai chi pretzel shapes trying to watch the instructor while attempting the moves.

Lack of practice space is another problem for the sword student. Standard household ceilings are not high enough for swordplay, and several of us nicked plaster trying to master the upper cut. One class member resolved her frustration by retiring her sword from practice sessions and substituting her kitchen knife sharpener for her weapon.

The power of learning tai chi in a class setting is helpful. Class members spot each other, correct mistakes and offer encouragement. “Nancy, you’re handling your sword wrong on that inverted strike. Lead with the sword butt.” “Loosen your grip on the handle, Jean, so you can manage that little flick that makes the tip rise.”

Eventually, moves that frustrated us dissolved into comfortable, flowing movements, and all the elements of the tai chi chien began to work in harmony. The class could manage the 32 forms with rudimentary skill.

Knowledge of the 32 sword form (if not mastery) gives the student one more routine with which to season or vary the tai chi practice sessions. Familiarity with the forms makes the student feel a little more at home in the world of tai chi — a little more appreciative of the masters. And the straight sword is an elegant and exotic addition to the art, calling on the entire student’s past learning, while offering the new challenge of calling out the spirit into the sword.

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