Say the word "taiji", and most of us immediately imagine qualities like soft, slow, tranquil, graceful, and flowing. So when people see performances of taiji quan which include quick movements and power, they ask me "Is this right? Is this really taiji?"
To clear up the question, we must first clear up our minds. To begin with, taiji quan originally was a martial art. To some people, it still is. Speed is a basic, fundamental requirement of any martial art style. Martial artists must issue power and power means hardness. Therefore any taiji quan still practiced as a martial art will include quick movements which issue power.
Change the focus from ancient Chinese martial art to universally beneficial health exercise, and you now have a choice: a) slow, soft movements only or, if physical condition and ability allow, b) a combination of soft and hard, quick and slow. For a health-oriented practice, either way is right, neither is wrong.
Secondly, Chinese kung fu is a very matured art and taiji quan a sophisticated style. So most of the time taiji quan requires practitioners to move very differently than in their daily lives at work and play. During the early stages of training, therefore, we must wash away our old habits of movement. Since old habits die hard, this becomes a serious issue.
Daily practice is an indispensable first step but it is not enough . Practicing the entire form at a relaxed, slow pace places us in a much better position to spot our problems and correct our movements. Of course it's not impossible to do this at a quick speed, but it is a lot more difficult.
The soft, relaxed pace of taiji quan also influences our internal practice. When we execute a form with speed, we will quite naturally--even subconsciously--try to put power into our movements. This power, however, is of the raw, ordinary, daily-life, muscle strength variety. It can increase only to a certain level. A punch of this type, for instance, is pretty much as strong as our arm. It does not use every part of the body to deliver its force. In other words, it's not taiji quan power. That's why soft practice is so important. While slow practice unveils our weaknesses, inconsistencies, and errors, soft practice allows us to let go of our old ways of generating strength and delivering power. And we must let go before we can move ahead.
As students, we should try to approach our taiji quan like babies. It should seem like a mysterious, interesting new world to explore. Our eyes must be fresh, our minds open, our bodies willing to learn a totally new way to move. Our education starts anew in order to lead us to the taiji quan way to issue power. This is why in the beginning it's very important to execute the movements so softly--as if we have no power at all.
Quite naturally, the majority of people in sports or movement arts are at the beginning levels of skill. A much smaller group progresses to the intermediate levels, even fewer are advanced, and only a tiny percentage approach real mastery. So most of the taiji quan we see in parks, community centers, and schools is at the elementary levels. Perhaps this explains why everyone thinks taiji quan should only be slow and soft.
There are many components to a full tajiji quan training program--for example, basics, forms, breath, forces, posture, two-person sensitivity, and usage. As students advance to higher levels, their training changes. New exercises may be introduced, old ones modified, and the way students practice the exercises must also progress. Changes in speed are introduced, limited at first to a few movements in the form to give students a taste. Later on, they learn to issue power in more and more of the moves.
Chen taiji quan has a famous first form, the lao jia (Old Form), which contains some quick movements, punches, and several different kicks--including a double jump kick. Its punches even issue power. Chen style also has a lesser known second form called Cannon Fist. As the name implies, the punches are delivered with the speed, force, and intent of a fired cannon.
Nowadays people think of speed and power-issuing as trademarks of Chen style. Some even use them as criteria to determine if a performance is Chen or Yang. Not true! They are natural ingredients of the original art of taiji quan.