That is a relative question. The first consideration is what style we are talking about. The one we speak somewhat authoritatively about is Cheng Man-Ch’ing’s form, which is what we practice at Patience T’ai Chi.Professor Cheng designed his form to take approximately 7-10 minutes to complete (although it certainly can be slowed even further for different benefits at different speeds) and contains 37 postures. Other popular forms are the Yang Style Long Form, which has 108 postures and takes around 20 minutes to perform, and the 24 Posture Simplified Form can take as little as 4 minutes.
So there is considerable variation in how long it may take one to learn Tai Chi even when just considering different styles. However, as we mentioned, we will speak in terms of learning the Cheng Man-Ch’ing form.
The second consideration is what is meant by “learn.” It generally takes about a year of classes, one hour once a week, to be physically shown and be able to reproduce the gross or basic movements. If you consider that to be what it is about, then that is your answer.
However it takes at least a year, and more commonly three years of correction to learn the finer details, and make the form as much as possible like your teacher’s form. However, at this point you are still at a level where if you stop lessons, your form will deteriorate. The finer details are not yet understood to the degree necessary to progress on your own, or prevent your own form from deteriorating if you stop for a period of time.
At this point, it is very helpful to teach in the presence of your teacher, as it will help him to see what you understand of the movement. In this way, the teacher can discern what he might not have from only watching you move. As you explain the moves, the teacher really sees a picture of what he has taught, and what you have absorbed, in your explanations. After teaching a class or two under your instructor’s supervision, this process will conclude, and you may now teach the form on your own. It is usually at this this time that the student’s Tai Chi practice grows to the point where the form will not deteriorate, but not improve either, if instruction stops.
When you have finished this initial correction period, you can begin to understand the principles. This happens quickly for some, indeed during the correction period, and slowly for others, starting a couple of years after the form has been corrected. The important thing is to allow yourself to learn at your own pace and be relaxed about it. What some learn quickly, you may learn slowly, and what others learn slowly, you may pick up immediately. As the practicing of the form continues, the student can get to the point of understanding where he can improve from his own practice.
This is the process. What your definition of “learning the form” is will decide where on this process you think you have learned, from the first time through, to the end of this process. You may choose where you think you know it, based on how deeply you want to delve. Many students stop at the end of the first run through of the form and go their ways. For others learning is the practice of a lifetime.
In T’ai Chi,