Why So Slow?

The most common response I get among people who do any martial arts, when they find out I do tai chi, is that it isn’t really a martial art at all; that saying you do tai chi as a martial art is a lot like saying you do “Combat Pilates.”  A humorous (and slightly gross) video demonstrates the attitude most martial artists have toward the art:

I’ve been doing this since the 90s and even I think this is funny!

To be fair, there is an element of truth to the charge.  Very few people practice tai chi as a martial art – most take it up for its benefits of balance, mobility, well-being and so on, which is a perfectly good reason, certainly as we get older and have no business getting into fights.

But for those who do train it as a martial art, it’s reasonable to ask “Why do y’all go so slow?”

There are a number of reasons:

The slowness gently builds up lower-body and core strength, and upper body agility
The Traditional 103-posture empty-hand form takes about 20-25 minutes to do at the proper pace.  If you were to rush through it at “full speed,” it takes between 7 and 9 minutes.  Practicing it over and over might develop explosive power, but it won’t develop the “internal” strength necessary to do the form properly.  Plus, you’d just get winded.

It encourages attention to detail
Tai chi can be considered a “thinking person’s martial art.”  It uses structure, balance, active sensing, timing and the mind rather than muscular power and brute strength.  There is of course a trade-off, and that’s the time it takes to get any good at it.  There are many elements to doing tai chi well, and it takes quite some time to learn them all, to say nothing of getting good at all of them at an intuitive level.  The payoff, however, is that it’s a skill which leads to better health, balance, greater confidence and peace-of-mind, and it can stay with you for your entire life.

It encourages awareness of ourselves, our surroundings and others
People didn’t really know how the wings of hummingbirds kept them in the air until they were filmed in super-slow-motion.  They move too fast for us to see them in any detail.  But it’s important to zoologists to see this motion, if they want to understand their flight.  Likewise, critical to tai chi is the innate awareness of how we feel – when moving, when standing “still,” when getting ready to move, etc.  From there, we move on to developing awareness of how our partner feels when we practice Push Hands.  We move slow to make it easier to perceive the messages we’re receiving.  We’d no more be able to develop this sense while moving “full speed” than zoologists can develop theories of hummingbird flight from looking at the blur of their wings.

At some point, if we’re keen to pursue tai chi as a martial art, we will want to begin moving faster, and we should.  But it can only come after we’re comfortable with the movements and after we’ve begun understanding the “internal” aspects of our art.  We speed things up when we’re ready.  To do so earlier than this is premature.