When I was learning Tai-Chi from Master T.T. Liang, he always used a variety of teaching techniques and tools to communicate this amazing art. One that he used he called the 5 Keys to Mastery. Each key helped with a particular facet of each posture. In time, I was able to apply the 5 Keys to whole forms and, eventually, complete systems. The 5 Keys are:
The “Left” Side
I'll give a brief explanation of each and if you apply them, you will be amazed at how easy it brings your learning, practicing, and teaching into focus and direction.
1. The Posture.
When learning a posture, or movement, Master Liang had some breakdowns which he taught.
The Stance, which one was used.
The Direction, of the movement, eyes, application, navel, etc.
The Counts, how many parts or pieces to a posture.
Heights of hands, like heart height or chin height.
Measurements, of stances, shoulder width or not, hands, arms, and size of circles.
Hand position, whether it was a Lady’s Hand, fist, hook, etc.
Steps, transitions, shifts, etc.
Book suggestion- Tai-Chi Chuan It's Effects and Practical Applications by Yearning K. Chen
2. The Name.
The names can help with teaching and learning. We can quickly identify what posture we are working on. Otherwise we are reduced to “Let's work on this one. You mean that one? No, the other one.” The Names cover a variety of meanings and lessons, and also include a deep and rich history of Chinese culture. The names can mean, describe, or teach:
External Motion/Action, like “Parry and Punch.”
Internal Feeling, like “Retreat to Ride the Tiger.”
A Story, like “White Snake Spits Out It's Tongue.”
Humor or Pun, like “Diagonal Flying.” WE don't fly diagonally, the opponent does!
Partial Phrase, like “Embrace the Moon.” Full phrase is Embrace the moon to your heart, which can teach action, height, etc.
Color can indicate an organ, emotion, or direction. For example, Green can indicate, anger, liver, East, shouting, etc. And can help with the both external and internal aspects of the posture.
Animals can also indicate direction, fighting technique, spirit, etc. They can also be mystical, like a dragon, which is more internal, or a tiger, which is external.
Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucionist references find their way into the names, such as “Raise the Curtain” in the sword form which is a Buddhist reference to getting a glimpse of reality.
History, like “Strike Tiger,” from a historical novel, Outlaws of the Marsh, in which one hero, Wu Song hits a Tiger and kills it with his fist.
Hidden meanings to keep the applications and healing from outsiders.
Martial Arts slang, known to those “in the trade.”
Helpful Hints, like “Needle at Sea Bottom” give the exact direction to make that joint-lock work.
There are others, but this gives you more than enough to study.
Book suggestion-How to Grasp the Sparrows Tail if You don't Speak Chinese by Jane Schorre
3. The Application
Tai-Chi's postures comes from many martial arts, most of them cataloged in General Qi Qi Guang's book of 32 Essential Movements. Through the centuries, many postures have been modified to include Taoist Meditation, Qi-Gong, Animal Frolics, and Chinese Medicine. Knowing their applications can help with the general outline of the posture as well as where to put the intent and focus. The applications therefore become the “working definition of each posture.”
A guideline for understanding the applications comes from four Chinese words:
Many of the postures have one of these as the obvious application, and many have all of them. The Two Person San-Shou form teaches applications from the Yang Style Solo Form and has applications from the older Chen Style Tai-Chi.
Book suggestion- The Essence and Applications of Taijiquan by Yang Chengfu
4. The Breath
Master Liang taught that each posture has an exact breath pattern and timing. For example, the posture “Push.” When you separated your hands and shifted back, you inhaled, when you shifted forward and pushed, you exhaled. This is usually for application. You can also reverse that sequence, breathing out at the end of “Push,” and that is for healing.
Also, how you breath can be explored. Mostly we use Natural Breathing, where your abdomen expands on inhalation, and contracts on exhalation. You can also do Reverse Breathing, where your abdomen contracts on inhalation, and expands or releases on exhalation. That is good for low postures, kicks, and slow rounds of the Form, as well as Pushing-Hands.
The highest level of breathing comes from the Tai-Chi Classics. “If you pay full attention to your spirit of vitality and ignore your breathing, your striking force will be as strong as pure steel.” This is what my teacher Grandmaster Wai-lun Choi calls, “don't bother your breathing.”
Book suggestion-Tai-Chi Chuan and Meditation by Da Liu
5. The Left Side
Master Liang emphasized doing the postures right and left, especially those that only have one version done in the solo form. Liang felt that for good health, the body should be developed equally. The Solo Form was choreographed by a right-handed person and you will find most of the squats, kicks, big circles, and difficult movements, etc. are done on the right side.
He also wanted us to practice the weapons in both hands, and to learn both sides of a two person form, especially if it was asymmetrical, like the San-Shou. This will totally inform our bodies and help us balance strength and flexibility in our whole body.
Book suggestion- T'ai-Chi by Cheng Man-ch'ing and Robert W. Smith