If you’re new to tai chi, you may not realize that there are multiple styles of tai chi. While the original tai chi style is Chen Style from Chen Village, another form emerged called Yang Style tai chi. This is what we often see practiced in parks and it has become the most popular of the tai chi styles practiced today.
The appeal of the yang style tai chi form is the large sweeping, graceful and slow movements. Yang style allows people of all ages and fitness levels to start easily and continue to practice it safely to improve their health. For the martial artist, the yang style allows them to focus more intensely on the internal aspects of tai chi without the distraction of fancy jumps and fast movements.
The Origins of Yang Style Tai Chi
Yang style is actually short for Yang family style (楊氏; pinyin: Yángshì). Yang Style is the second tai chi style developed after the original Chen family style. The founder of Yang style was Yang Luchan (楊露禪, 1799–1872) who studied Chen style tai chi but as he became a tai chi master in his own right, he developed his own expression of tai chi which then later became known as Yang style tai chi.
Yang Luchan then passed on his art to his disciples who were directly or indirectly responsible for the development of the other 3 major family styles:
- and Sun.
The Yang Style Tai Chi that we know today with its slow, expansive and soft movements is largely a result of the modifications made by Yang Chengfu (楊澄甫, 1883–1936). Primarily the explosive power (發勁; pinyin: fā jìn), jumps and foot stomps where removed. In its place, there is more emphasis on maintaining a large frame combined with a series of expansive opening and closing movements.
The Traditional Yang Style Tai Chi Form
Due to its popularity and widespread practice, the many yang style schools and teachers offer their own variation of the form and their own ways of counting the number of moves in the form. The number of moves can range from 85, 88, 103 to 108 depending on how they are counted. So a better way to refer to the form is to call it “Traditional Yang Style Tai Chi” (sometimes referred to as the “Long Form”), rather than naming it with the number of moves.
The traditional yang style form was designed for both improving health and martial arts practice. When practiced at the correct pace, it takes approximately 25 – 30 minutes to finish the whole set. The moves are also sequenced to increasingly challenge the practitioner from easy to medium to harder moves. Kicks and moves that require low stretches or spins occur later in the form, this allows the practitioner to sufficiently warm up with the easier moves first before attempting the harder moves.
The traditional Yang style tai chi form challenges and hones the flexibility, strength, balance and internal energy of the practitioner in a safe manner. Recalling and executing the moves of the full 25-30 minute traditional yang style form makes it both a good mental as well as cardio workout.
Yang Style Competition / Short Forms
A short or simplified version of yang style tai chi was developed in the 1950’s by the Chinese Sports Commission for the purpose of competition. Key movements from the traditional Yang Style form were condensed into 24 moves so that it could be completed within 6 minutes.
With only 24 moves to remember, the simplified yang style form became popular as it sounded easier to do. With our modern busy lifestyles, many people gravitated to the simplified form to avoid the longer learning curve of the traditional long form.
In time, many schools and teachers started developing their own Yang style short form (anywhere from 32, 37 or 48 moves) to cater to the popular demand for a shorter routine with fewer movements to recall and supposedly less time required to improve our health by practicing tai chi.
Learning Yang Style Tai Chi
If your goal is to improve your health by practicing tai chi, it is probably not a good idea to take shortcuts.
To start, practicing a condensed yang style short form means you are cutting your workout time from 30 minutes down to 6-15 minutes. The competition / short form incorporates all the key skills from the traditional yang style tai chi form within 24 moves. It was designed for competitors to demonstrate their mastery of these skills. This means you will be executing difficult and competition level movements from the very start before you have time to warm up properly.
With the long form or traditional yang style form, a variety of gentle and basic movements help the practitioner warm up before having to execute a physically more advanced level movement. To prevent injury when practicing the advanced movements of the competitive short forms, competitors would add extra warm up exercises first to prepare for the physically challenging movements of the short form movements. In the end, it takes the same amount of work out time to do an extended warm up and then practice the short form as it does to just practice the traditional long form yang style routine.
Another common reason people have for wanting to practice the short form is the need to remember fewer moves. Remembering more movements may take longer for us to learn and retain but the traditional long form helps us improve and maintain our mental fitness. By reducing the number of moves we need to recall, we cut back on the mental health benefits of the exercise which includes improved memory, concentration and cognitive functions.
Whether you are learning tai chi for health or martial arts, the benefits of learning and practicing the traditional yang style tai chi form far outweigh the competitive short form versions of yang style. The traditional form may seem intimidating at first with over 80 moves to remember. Our teaching methods break it down and give people time to learn the basics and lay a solid foundation of knowing the core movements for flexibility, balance, strength and proper biomechanics. As people practice weekly, monthly and yearly, they add layers of depth to their understanding of movement, intention and energy. With repetition, it becomes natural to remember and recall the moves until it feels easy to remember.
Tai chi is a journey. There is no need to rush through your training in the quest for speed or less work. It takes time to build up our muscle memory so the efforts of every moment of tai chi practice goes to improve our health and solidify our martial arts skills. In fact, returning to practice the more simple or basic skills regularly during training, propels our tai chi skills more significantly than solely trying to add a new advanced skill every time we practice. We propel our ability to advance in the long term by re-learning basic skills with the fresh perspective of new insights gained at each level of our progression.
If you are still curious about what Yang Style Tai Chi looks like, here’s a preview of our online training video that accompanies our regular classes: https://youtu.be/gwOHV8bKQyM
At Ji Hong Tai Chi Mississauga, we do not rush through our instruction. Instead we spend quality time with people learning tai chi for the first time, assuring that they learn movements well while paying close attention to posture, balance and relaxation. Having the correct approach to practicing tai chi allows people to be successful at every level of tai chi they choose to engage in.