On the other side of structure lies pure play. Play — the manipulation of things without foreknowledge of result — is important throughout life and, I think, in the hierarchy of needs, it replaces self-esteem (apologies to Abraham Maslow, 1908-1970, distinguished psychologist): Food — Shelter — Love — Play — Self actualization
Some routine is inescapable when it comes to doing whatever is necessary. Even then, some play is good as you test the limits of how efficiently you perform a task. Although I’m sure the love-of-my-life and long-suffering wife (same person!) will disagree, I am someone who loves classification and structure. These intellectual activities have been essential for me in organizing a body of knowledge in a way that makes sense to me. How else can you explain what you know? But in the practice of taiji it can be a barrier to understanding the form.
Taiji practitioners sometimes refer to themselves as players. I’m not sure of the etymology, but I think it suits. There is sometimes a tendency to treat exercise as another task to be completed, as a box to be checked off, and learning a skill does involve a certain amount of willpower and repetition, but once established, automatic completion of the task becomes taxing, and experiment becomes more important. If one does anything repetitively and without attention to detail, it is not much use to oneself, and can be harmful as patterns of movement (and thinking) become locked in, leading to strain on the system. If you look at safety protocols around activities involving risk, you will notice how they take into account the natural slippage that routine has on attention. Play, on the other hand, is self-regenerating. It stretches, exercises and harmonizes.
As a side note, schools, particularly those that serve as a political sandbox for education experts, have, in my opinion, the unintended consequence of cementing an artificial division between play and work. The concentration of attention to ticking off scores in subjects that do not include art, drama, and movement (whether dance, sports or otherwise) leads, I think, to a particularly lopsided view of life; following the belief that work and play are separate is the behavior that to be taken seriously one must look serious (cue the segment where George Costanza demonstrates how to look busy by acting impatiently).
This imperative towards play lies behind many mysterious aphorisms that surround taiji. How to simultaneously practice and not practice? How to move and yet be still? How to deflect a blow of 1,000 pounds with 4 ounces? These questions become more important once the basic mechanics of the form are learned as they are the catalyst of play and subsequent advancement. For years I practiced “religiously” and my progress was slow, painfully so at times. In the old days one’s teacher would have noticed the formulaic repetition and would have just nodded encouragement while thinking “hopeless!” I was lucky. My teacher is detached by a generation from the old ways and suggested I stop practicing; if I must do something, he said, just stand there. I took his advice and noticed that, as my anxiety at doing nothing subsided, I began to “hear” what my body had to say.
There’s no way to escape the routine of learning the taiji form, but I think there’s a way to teach it that does not totally exclude play. In the meantime, there is no harm in waving your arms and legs around in the fresh air. That is, unless you’re afraid of playing!