A student’s progress in tai chi is pretty straightforward. There are certain steps one takes in his or her journey; they go roughly in order, and there’s really no “skipping a step.” It’s a process, and we must learn to trust the process.
The first thing we learn is the “external” part of tai chi – where our hands and feet go, how we move, how we balance, what it should feel like, which move comes after which and so on. Many students never get past this phase. They think they “know” tai chi, but all they know is the movements, which is only a portion, though an important portion.
At some point, either while the student is learning the postures & transitions or some time afterward, he or she will begin to understand the “internal” portion of tai chi. They’ll begin to feel where the energy comes from in this-or-that posture & transition. They’ll develop a better sense of rootedness, centeredness and balance. They’ll begin to be able to correct their own imperfections just because they “feel” wrong, not because someone’s watching them and telling them so.
While this sense is developing, the student is normally introduced to tui shou or “push hands,” the interactive element of tai chi. Determining when students are ready for this is usually up to the teacher. Now we’re not merely learning how to sense our own energy, posture and intention, but that of another person. This is different from sparring – the intent in tui shou is not to “win” but to discover and learn.
After this, the student’s growth depends mostly on what the student wants. If he or she wants to focus on the internal and well-being aspects, their effort will be focused primarily on the correct performance of the form, as well as understanding the basics of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Chinese philosophy and so on. If he or she wants to study the martial aspect of the art, their growth will lead mostly to learning the applications, actually sparring with tai chi (sometimes against players from other arts), studying the weapon forms etc. However, both types of tai chi players will have to learn something of the other’s focus – the health-focused player must know the applications in order to direct their energy properly, and the martial player must understand the Medicine and philosophical aspects in order to properly apply the techniques.
In time, every long-term student will come to a point where they practice the art almost for its own sake. The movements are second-nature, the energy flows through the body at will, and the mind is simultaneously sharply focused and diffusely aware. It’s at this point that it’s hard to say where tai chi ends and the player begins – the two are intimately intertwined.
At each “level” of discovery, it’s important to return from time to time back to the basics, because despite our best efforts, bad or lazy habits will creep in and become obstacles to learning. It’s at this point the student runs the risk of what Grandmaster Yang Zhenduo called “knowing the form TOO well.” It really is true that everyone, including the teacher, is a student.