The term "First Separate, Then Combine" has been around a while. It describes a method of practicing to help us develop a deeper level of skill. It works by developing the neuromotor pathways (muscle memory) to make it a permanent part of our tai chi skill set.
Separate and then combine means to separate out a principle or a movement or form, practice it separately until it becomes second nature. Then separate out a different part of a form and practice it. Then combine those parts two at a time and practice them until they become second nature. Then separate out another different part and practice it separately. Then combine it with the others.
The part that you separate out could be the physical movement. In this case, practice the movements of one foot until it is clear. Next, learn the movement of the other foot. Then practice them together. Then learn the movement of one hand. Then combine that with the movement of the feet. Then learn the movement of the last hand and combine it with the feet and first hand.
The part that you separate out could be a principle, like a slow weight shift in one particular form. Practice that until it is second nature. Then pick a different form and practice the principle for that form. Continue this practice for every form you are learning.
Paul Cavel wrote an article published in IMOS Journal (read entire article here) In this article he defines 3 stages of Separate and Combine: 1) Broken Practice; 2) Continuous Practice; and 3) Awareness.
Stage 1: Broken Practice
The purpose of Stage 1 is to learn the movements of a form. Start with one part of the form, like stepping and weight shift. Use your intent (focused mind) to make sure you are doing it the best you can. and practice it over and over. Then add in one arm and it's movement and practice it over and over. Then the other arm, etc. The go back to the beginning and add in an internal component, like song to the weight shifting. Then gradually add in the rest one piece at a time. At the end of this stage, the movement of the forms becomes somewhat automatic.
Stage 2: Continuous Practice
The purpose of Stage 2 is to continue to practice the movements of a form and allowing your mind to focus on one particular aspect of the form. This stage can begin when you have practiced a particular part of a form for enough time that you can work without having to give it too much thought. You should focus your mind on one particular component (movement or internal principle) during the practice until the work has stabilized and can be repeated without thought.
You will find that you move back and forth between Stages 1 and 2 during your practice as you learn new things. Each time you practice, pay attention to any parts that don't seem to flow properly. Next time you practice, go back to Stage 1 for these parts of the form. This builds the foundation for Stage 3. It is important that you do not shortcut Stage 2 and try to move too quickly to Stage 3.
Stage 3: Awareness
The purpose of Stage 3 is to develop a awareness of everything that is happening. You should be continuously scanning how your body and mind feel during your practice. When you are operating at this stage, you can quickly detect when anything is not right. You can use your intent to fix whatever is wrong and get back to your practice. Now, it's time to go back to your teacher and learn something new so you can start again at Stage 1.
© 2013 Eric Borreson