It probably doesn’t have to take as long as you think.
However, that may depend partly on your point of view.
Let me first say that there is a difference in my mind between expertise and mastery. Expertise is a relative measure of a person’s proficiency. Mastery is an abstract concept.
Tai chi is an art form. So mastery is seen as a journey rather than a destination. The more you play tai chi, the more profound it gets. As you improve, the art becomes deeper.
Tai chi is also know as both an exercise and a martial art. There are certain fundamentals and key elements which one must learn in order to demonstrate a recognisable level of expertise. But the measure of expertise is a little different for those seeking the martial skill than it is for those who are seeking only the health benefits. Having said that, the expertise required for a student to realise the most profound health benefits of tai chi, is a pre-requisite for students wishing to use tai chi for self defence.
It is possible to gain the health benefits of tai chi without gaining the martial skill. But the converse is not true. You cannot become a skilled “tai chi fighter” without transforming mind, body, and spirit in a truly healthy way.
So, it will take longer to achieve the most profound martial skills of tai chi than it will to achieve the most profound health benefits.
I try to introduce my students to the lasting benefits of tai chi from the first day of class. If I teach the first class correctly, the students will leave with a skill or technique that they can practise confidently on their own, and recognise the benefit immediately.
Within three months, I hope my students will have less pain, more energy, stronger legs, deeper breathing, less inflammation, better balance, better sleep, less stress, better cardiovascular health, better blood pressure, better flexibility, and more peace of mind. If they practice every day, it is possible. If they practise only twice per week, there is still a chance that they will notice some improvement. If they only practise once per week, there will still be improvement, but it will be much less noticeable.
Typically, the first noticeable improvements to health of body, mind, and spirit will begin to show after about six weeks of regular practice (at least twice per week). More profound changes will take root after about three months of regular practice. By this time, many students will find themselves wanting to practice every day. That is when the real fun begins and the deep and lasting transformation of mind, body, and spirit can take place. After one or two years of regular daily practice, a person’s health and quality of life might be greatly changed for the better.
For those who seek martial skill, they should be willing to dedicate at least one hour per day to solo practice. Without a doubt, less than thirty minutes will not cut it.
With a good teacher, and just a little talent, a student who practises tai chi one to three hours per day should achieve some real martial skill in about one to three years. But you will not likely hold a candle to those who practise six to 12 hours per day for decades. My teacher practised an esoteric martial qigong for six hours per day, every day, from the age of six until he went to university. This means that if you practice one hour per day, every day, for the next thirty-six years, you will have pracitsed as much as he had by the time he was twelve years old.
Quantity of practice is not the same as quality, however. You could put in hours of half-hearted or incorrect practice, and achieve very little. On the other hand, you could be like some Zen masters who practice martial arts for only one minute per day yet achieve great skill due to their superior mental and physical discipline.
A friend of mine was studying with an Aikido master who told him, “If you practice this way every day, after one year, maybe you will have power. If, after one year you have no power, practise for one more year. After two years, maybe you will have power. If, after two years, you have no power, practise for one more year. After three years maybe you will have power. If, after three years, you still do not have power……then maybe you are not special.”
To succeed, you must understand your goal, have a teacher who understands how to best help you achieve your goal, and have the time and discipline to do what is necessary to achieve it. With time, some luck, a little talent, and a lot of consistent focus, you can achieve your goal.
– by Ian Sinclair