Before I get into it, I should define Taiji, or what Taiji is to me:
Taijiquan is a style of Gongfu, based on the Thirteen Postures, the practice of which serves to build Gong for the practitioner (my definition).
Taijiquan: Grand Extreme Boxing. "A pugilistic art rooted in the Daoist concepts of the interplay and necessary balance of yin and yang." (Yang).
Gongfu: Kung Fu. Acquired Skill. Skillful Work. Dedicated Training.
Thirteen Postures: The Eight Energies plus Five Directions. The Eight Energies are Peng, Lu, Gi, and An. The Five Directions are forward, back, left, right, and central equilibrium.
Gong: "Constant improvements in balance, coordination, agility, and power through the accretion and replenishment of Qi." (Yang).
Now, there are infinite different expressions and "styles" of Taiji practice. I train in, teach, and am only concerned with traditional practice. To be frank, I don't care what others may practice, but for those who train with me I do want to clarify the way we train and why.
Traditional Taijiquan is composed of Qigong, Taiji Form, and Push Hands.
This is the basic formula for practice. We can obviously expand our definitions of the three categories, but this is the basic format. From a traditional perspective, any practice that doesn't emphasize these categories is incomplete.
The foundation of the three aspects of Taijiquan is the Bafa or Eight Energies.
Everything we do in Taiji is in essence a manifestation of the Bafa. Qigong, loosely defined as energy work or energy skill, is a practice of self nurture based on our inherent energy. Taiji form is the expression of this energy, specifically in eight specific ways. In the Chen-Hunyuan lineage under which I train and teach, our main form, The Essential 48, is practiced in such a way that we pay close attention to the essential energies manifested in each movement. There is much wisdom in practicing form in this manner. Further, Push Hands practice is an opportunity to apply these energies as various attacks and defenses in a playful and nurturing context. Of the Eight Energies, the first, Peng, is understood as a directional energy, up and out, and as a quality: the quality of expansion. Thus conceived, Peng should be expressed throughout our Taiji form and partner practices. In Push Hands, the maintenance of Peng quality gives each partner a sense of gentle resistance. In Taiji form, we maintain that expansion and feel the resistance by mentally moving through water. Additionally, every movement from the form is based on an application of the Eight Energies. To really understand form, the practitioner should learn the application of each posture. Each and every posture is based on finding and applying leverage in an interactive encounter.
Traditional Taijiquan is a method for learning to relax under duress.
Anyone can relax after a Qigong or meditation session. But can that same peace of mind be maintained off the mat when we meet the challenges and exigencies of life? Traditional Taijiquan practice offers a great format for that. But it should be kept in mind, the idea is to build gong, not to fight or struggle. When playing Push Hands we want to nurture our partner by challenging our partner. We want to give them something to work with so they can apply the lessons learned in a challenging, interactive encounter. What constitutes challenging depends on the skill of each practitioner. Note, and this is crucially important, it should not depend on the strength of each practitioner, but skill. However, it takes a lot of practice for any of us to get to the level where we rely on skill and not strength. We have to keep this in mind when working with a Push Hands partner. The more skilled partner has an obligation to not overpower the other, to provide enough skill that his/her partner can be challenged and hopefully learn and grow.
Traditional Taiji form and Push Hands should be informed by Qigong and the Bafa. In order to build gong, Push Hands practice should be interactive and challenging.
Less an emphasis on the Eight Energies, Taiji form and Push hands are not much more than choreographed movement. We often find in contemporary Taiji an emphasis on form over and above everything else. Further, we find an emphasis on the aesthetics of form, rather than the meaning, intention, and application behind the individual movements. Such an emphasis may produce a visually appealing form, but one that is empty of essence and gong nonetheless. Much the same can be said for Push Hands. One may find examples of Push Hands practice that don't involve much more than two people rotating their hands together in a circle, or two-person forms and exercises that put more of an emphasis on coordination and cooperation than on the utilization of intentional energy to challenge one's partner.
Interactive and challenging Push Hands practice teaches us to be present, to be aware of the operational situation and mindful of our partner and his/her intentions, to go with the flow and change with the change. Practices that follow a predetermined format teach us to be mindful of the form more than the situation and partner, and, while engaging a sort of flow, have very little to do with change and challenge. Further, practices where one player bounces across the floor or against the wall in response to a no-touch throw or from internal Jing that appears to mysteriously flow out of the the other player's hands are not conducive to Gongfu and are of no interest to me. Such practices are controversial parlor tricks and the arguments used to justify or criticize them are a massive waste of energy and finite moments.
To each his/her own
I started this by noting that I want to clarify what I consider of value and what I don't. This opinion is based on the style of Taiji I practice and my personal approach. There is absolutely nothing new or innovative about my approach. On the other hand, I have always been of the mind that there is no one way to practice Taiji. I have always been opposed to the "my way is right and your way is wrong" approach. I am not concerned at all if anyone disagrees with my points here, and my way of practicing. And I don't care in the least that there are folks who do it differently than I. We are all different and will all find a path that works for us. However, within that framework there will be things that will work and things that won't; things that fit and things that don't. This is my approach.
Taijiquan: The Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power. Yang, 2008. Zhenwu Publications