We don’t need to learn many forms to understand and master the art we’re practicing. In fact, trying to learn many different forms often distracts us from understanding the true teachings and underlying principles of our art.
I like to tell students, that we could practice ‘stroking the mane of the horse’ for the rest of our life and we would be able to find, practice and perfect all Tai Chi principles within that one movement. In Yang style it is said that ‘grasping the birds tail’ is the fundamental movement that represents the essence of the style. Almost every style has such a movement or essential form, that represents the core of its founders ideas (like Kanku Dai for Shotokan founder Gichin Funakoshi and Sanchin for Goju Ryu founder Chojun Miyagi).
The small component contains the whole
‘Stroking the mane of the horse’ or ‘grasping the bird’s tail’ seem to be very basic movements, but in fact all of Tai Chi (and martial arts) is contained in them. As you practice, pay attention to the details and try to find those principles in the simple form.
In science we learned just fairly recently that all of nature follows a similar rule. The smallest component represents and holds the structure and the principles of the whole. Nature follows the rules of Chaos theory (or System theory in more scientific terms) and is fundamentally of fractal nature. You might know the beautiful and famous pictures of fractals, popularized by Benoit Mandelbrot, which visualize mathematical formulas that describe how our universe is built. If you zoom in, you see the same patterns and rules that you see when you zoom way out. It’s the same with Tai Chi, if you zoom all the way in (e.g. how you move your fingers), you apply and understand the same principles as if you zoom all the way out (e.g. performing the Form of 108).
Focus on the details
It also means, that you don’t have to hold yourself back from practicing on your own just because you don’t yet remember the form. If you remember ‘stroking the mane of the horse’, you have everything you need to practice and understand the principles and details. In fact you have a higher chance to understand the deeper levels of what you are doing, than when you get stuck on remembering the sequences of the form.
“The master finds the answers in studying the small details.”
So why do we learn multiple forms after all? For the same reason why many systems have graduation levels: to keep the student engaged and interested (in the case of graduation systems also to make more money). If we would practice only one technique for years, most students would get bored and run away. So we switch combinations of techniques and forms to keep everyone mentally engaged.
How we teach today
In modern times we are forced to trade avoiding boredom with depth of understanding. In the old days you would actually have worked on a single form for three to five years, before moving on to the next. For instance in Karate you would train a form of similar length as the Form of 24 for at least 3 years before your teacher would let you move on to the next one.
Our modern teaching style allows more students to tag along and get benefits, but it requires those who want to really understand their art to go the extra mile and spend the extra effort to go deeper and explore further in their own time. The upside of this approach is that it creates benefits for more people as the arts become more accessible. The downside is that it puts more ownership on students who want to go deeper and understand their art more completely. But then again, maybe that’s actually good. No pain, no gain.
The good news is that you get all the tools (principles) in class. Your job is to apply them to your practice. Take individual movements and polish them, using the principles you learned. Follow the principles of ‘deliberate practice’ (for further reading check out: ‘Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise’ by Anders Ericsson).