Most tai chi forms are made of more than one movement that are normally performed slowly in a continuous movement. First question: Why move slowly? Second question: How slow? Let's look at these separately.
Why move slowly?
There are many benefits to slow movement. I have written about this before. (Read more here.) Here is a quick summary:
Pay attention to detail - One of the major reasons for slow movement is so that the learner can pay attention to every detail. Moving slowly allows us to pay attention to how we want to move instead of how we usually move.
Coordinating the upper and lower - With slow movement, it is easier to figure out where to place your feet and hands, when and how to turn, and where to look. Moving slowly allows the learner to understand the relative speeds and how to coordinate the movement. (Read more here.)
Song - One of the first principles typically taught to students is Song, or relax and loosen. (Read more here.) It is easier to identify any areas of tightness in the muscles and joints when moving slowly. It allows us to feel every muscle as it contracts and loosens.
Distinguish Between Substantial and Insubstantial - One students learn to step, they can learn to distinguish between substantial and insubstantial so they are able to turn and move lightly and gracefully. If you can’t tell the difference, your steps will be heavy and sluggish. (Read more here.)
Stillness Within Movement - Slow movements in tai chi force you to spend time with all your weight on one leg as you step and move. Better strength and balance leads to smooth and tranquil movements.
Calm Mind - With slow movements, the body and mind learn to relax naturally. It is in introduction to the meditative state. (Read more here.)
It is common for beginners to practice too fast. The previous section explains why to slow down. Slow, relaxed movements really are the best for your health. However, it is possible to move too slowly if you are new to tai chi. If you have some experience and are happy with the results, then you are doing just fine. If you are moving too slow, it can be difficult to sink your qi. (Read more here.) It becomes difficult to coordinate movement and breath.
A common rule of thumb is to use your breathing as part of your movement. You want to breathe slowly and deeply. At the beginning of a form, or short sequence of movement, you are storing energy. Begin inhaling as you begin moving. At the end of a form, you are delivering energy. Finish exhaling as you finish moving.
Let's look at a common example. Most styles of tai chi include some kind of movement called Brush Knee. You start from central equilibrium. Inhale as you store energy and begin the movement. At some point during the movement, you switch from inhaling (storing energy) to exhaling (delivering energy). As one hand moves down to brush past your thigh or knee, your other hand extends forward to deliver energy. As you reach the normal full extension, you finish exhaling as you finish moving.
Don't get me wrong. There are reasons to move very slowly. There are reasons to move very quickly. Let your teacher work with you on this. You will need to find your Goldilocks point, where your speed is just right, not too fast, not too slow.
Beginners - be cautious about following this advice about breathing. Breathing is generally not taught to beginning tai chi students because they have a tendency to let the breathing become more important than the movement. When you are learning, it is more important to learn the movements correctly than to try to breathe correctly. Most teachers recommend that you practice for several years before you spend much time working on your breathing.
Note: If you are not familiar with the story of Goldilocks, all you need to know is that the Goldilocks story is about a young girl that needed to find something that was just right: not too hot, not too cold; and something else that was just right: not too hard, not too soft.
© 2012 Eric Borreson