Most tai chi styles offer at least 2 forms: long and short. Some styles like Yang have categorized them into a multitude of sizes 18 – 24 – 48 – 83 – Tall – Grande – Venti…
Let’s talk about the values of the different sizes of the forms. In this article I am going to commend you for learning a short version of the form but also supply some physiological research as to why eventually pursuing the long form is a great idea.
Depending on how long it takes to do your short form you might be just short of a threshold of time that will result in greater gains.
Benefits of the tai chi short form
- Easy teachable
- Increased retention of new students
- Easily to accomplish in 1 month (fast) to 3-4 months (average)
- Most of the main movements are contained in a short form and merely repeated in the long form
- Can improve your movement and balance with minimal investment of time
Benefits of the tai chi long form
- Traditionally you are partaking in something great that expands across the centuries
- A physical workout
- Increased focus. Your mind can’t wander during the long form or you forget where you are.
- Thorough stretching of all ligaments and sinews
- Greater repetition of important movements which results in greater facility
- AND NOW! there is on body of science that inadvertently defends/proves why the long form is superior
Modern research supporting the practice of the tai chi long form
Recent scientific breakthroughs are demonstrating that mind-body movement strategies can actually “switch off” or “switch on” gene activity associated with health and disease. Everyone is familiar with the “Fight or Flight Response” but researcher Richard Benson asked a very significant and unique question:
If your body can ramp you up to respond to physiological needs, can it also ramp down?
The answer is yes. People can reduce heart rate, stress, and biological markers present during trauma and tension. So how did they do it?
The Relaxation Revolution
Can a human alter their health through relaxation techniques? Yes.
Benson’s studies began by employing experts in meditation and eastern practice to see if 1) their emotional states differed from the norm and if 2) they could actively change their states as measured by biological markers upon request. Yes: experienced meditators had healthier states and could alter biological markers such as mental states, breathing, sweat, and hear rate.
Can novice practitioners alter their health? Yes.
After proving that biological markers could be moved, he created experiments to test un-experienced people. In these studies they used progressive relaxation techniques where a recording (the Olivia Recordings) led a person to concentrate on successive body parts. The goal was to arrive at a state which mirrors the relaxed state that we experience upon waking or is actively obtained by accomplished meditators. Novice practitioners achieved this state in 12-15 minutes and then were free to concentrate on whichever aspect of health they wanted to improve.
How does Benson suggest that we replicate the results?
In Benson’s book he goes on to say that you do not need to use the Olivia recording but recommends it if you don’t have another practice. Practitioners of yoga, eastern practices, and meditation all equally acquire this state. What was the constant in each set of studies was the time: 12-15 minutes were needed to achieve the healing state.
You guessed it: 12-18 minutes. Just enough time to incite the relaxation response. Secondly, styles like Chen Tai Chi routinely do the long form two times back-to-back. Yep, about the same amount of time that Benson found was necessary to fully engage the relaxation response and then promote creativity or healing.
One reason that I love tai chi and the eastern arts is that I will undertake an activity because “I am told to” or “because that is the way it has been done for X-hundred of years.” So often these assertions are millenia ahead of the science that prove it beneficial.
But can I just do the tai chi short form twice and get to 12 minutes?
Definitely. You have put a of time into learning a form and can immediately benefit from Benson’s research by pushing yourself into the 12 -15 minute window. And of course, if you meditate or do yoga, apply this to your practice. It is the window of time that is important.
Why would I learn the tai chi long form then?
The long form takes physical and mental dexterity to learn and practice. There is a higher education embedded in the longer sequence that we are only on the cusp of understanding. Movements are repeated but sequences vary in a specific way. Finishing the long form feels like having received a gently but intelligent massage of the entire body. Additionally, if you suffer from a racing mind or difficulty concentrating then the long form is for you. Giving something physical your full attention for 15 minutes enables one to focus throughout the day more easily.
Full Reference and Further Reading
This is a (very) summarized version. To read about the complete study I invite you to read Benson’s Relaxation Revolution. If you do venture into the book, at least know that Benson is a serious researcher and his results are verified. Here is a bit about him:
Herbert Benson (born 1935), is an American medical doctor, cardiologist, and founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute atMassachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He is Mind/Body Medicine Professor at Harvard Medical School and Director Emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute (BHI) at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is Founding Trustee of The American Institute of Stress. He has contributed more than 190 scientific publications and 12 books.