As with so many things in Tai Chi, the advantages (and disadvantages) of differing speeds and heights is dependent on where you are in your level of learning. A short round of Tai Chi with a relatively high stance is best for learning the movements. Typically, a short round of Cheng Man-Ch’ing form is 3-4 minutes in duration (and in other forms, roughly half the typical duration, or in other words, twice as fast as normal), at a stance which is not tiring to the legs so that fatigue does not interfere with your ability to remember what you have been taught. When one is learning the form, if one tries to do it too slowly, it can be difficult to remember. Slow movements can be very slippery to the memory. I do not know why, but in my many years of teaching I have observed that doing it faster can be helpful in the beginning, especially for learning and remembering sequences.
An intermediate round should last about 7 minutes for Cheng Man-Ch’ing form. This is the minimum speed advocated by Professor Cheng Man Ch’ing. For other forms, this would be whatever the normal duration is considered to be for that form – for example, about 20 minutes for Yang Long form. This is slow enough to facilitate a meditative benefit if you can keep your mind empty, and if you practice with deep enough stances, it will strengthen your legs. Also it will train push hands and martial applications into the body. You do not have to be aware of what you are doing. The priciples of Tai Chi movement will be there for you – if you practice properly – when you get to push hands and martial applications.
If you have no more time for Tai Chi, practicing daily at this speed will give you the basic benefits, including improved balance (because of the postures in which you go onto one foot, and then come off of it very slowly). It also has yogic benefits. Not being doctors, we can say no more about Tai Chi’s health benefits. However, there is a growing body of medical research to be found in both medical and Tai Chi literature pointing to its benefits.
So we can say that a 7 minute round of Tai Chi is for maintenance of knowledge of the form and for its health benefits, as well as a preparation for push hands and martial understandings. It can also be a meditation, and an exercise for the development of chi. However, longer is better for meditation.
A 10-15 minute round is primarily for meditation and chi development, although it can also be used to develop leg strength. If you take deep stances while performing the form this slowly, it will greatly strengthen your legs. However, while the aforementioned (meditation and leg strengthening) are not mutually exclusive, you should not try to meditate at this speed (or this lack of speed, as the case may be) until your legs are strong enough to at least not shake and hurt during the process, as this will tend to distract you from your meditation. As a rule, at this speed you should not move more slowly than you can breathe properly with the movements. (For those interested, we will have a video with the inhales and exhales of the Cheng Man-Ch’ing Tai Chi form available in about a year.) But do not worry, as the breathing will slow down with the years of your practice, if you practice form with the breathing.
I have used a 1-hour round of Cheng Man-Ch’ing form for acclimatizing myself to the weather, as a long meditation, and for reaching and relieving deep tension.
– Sifu Bill Phillips
It is also possible to do Tai Chi much, much slower for even further benefit (though you can not do the breathing at these levels). I have used a one hour round of Cheng Man-Ch’ing form (the same form that normally takes 7-10 minutes) for acclimatizing myself to the weather, as a long meditation, and for reaching and relieving deep tension. It is here that you reach the point where you feel you can go on forever, that Tai Chi has no end, just movement. It is also here that you can address your deepest levels of tension. Your arms will stop and start as you try to move slowly. However, eventually the shaking will disappear if you do this often enough, and you will have to go slower still to find the level at which you shake or tremble again. But in the meantime, doing a 15 minute round of Tai Chi will seem like speeding, and you will feel very smooth at that and all faster speeds.
I encourage you to experiment with whatever style of Tai Chi you practice at different speeds (or perhaps it might be better to say, different “slows”) as one really gains the most benefit from practicing slower than what is considered “normal” speed for most forms. You just may find that Tai Chi offers you more than you ever imagined.
In T’ai Chi,