A few years ago, our Wing Chung teacher began offering Tai Chi classes on Saturdays. I trained with him for a while, stopped when riding took over my Saturdays, and started again over the summer. It's definitely a different sort of experience.
Now, my teacher is, himself, a pretty "old-school" artist. His Wing Chung sifu trained alongside Bruce Lee with Yip Man in Hong Kong. He, himself, emphasizes hard-core street-fighting technique (students wear shoes to train and require the kind of hard shin guards worn by hockey players and baseball catchers to protect their legs, if that's any indication). He values Tai Chi for its physical and mental benefits, but doesn't spend time talking about chi development, chi flow, or any of that kind of stuff.
So studying with him is, as I said, a different sort of experience. Students send the first several weeks just learning to walk the "Tai Chi walk" that is the foundation of all Tai Chi movement. When he feels you've got that down, he adds some arm movements. Once you can move with balance and fluidity, he'll start you on the Yang short form (the one with 108 moves in 4 sets -- "short" has a very different meaning in Tai Chi!). He demonstrates the moves, then just spends a lot of time watching, making small corrections here and there. He does explain the why's and wherefore's of the moves, adjusting his explanations depending on each student's background, but focusing almost exclusively on the fighting applications.
I love Tai Chi class. On any given Saturday, there may be anywhere from 4-8 of us working out. The four advanced students are most of the way through the form, and I love watching them do it together. I'm partway through the second set, and sometimes do the first part with them, which is really cool. The rest are working, variously, on walking or adding arm postures. We all work at our own pace, so it's not like we're all joined in a structured practice. But at the same time, when everyone's quiet and the only sound is the brushing of feet on the floor inside and the traffic noises and bird song from outside, I feel very connected and peaceful.
For me, as I suspect for most people, the benefits of this practice run the whole gamut from the physical to the spiritual. Physically, this practice forces me to focus on my center, alignment, and balance. It shows me where my right and left sides are "uneven" and helps me correct those imbalances. It's an awesome way to improve leg and core strength and is a great warmup for karate class. Because of the slow pace of the form, it's a perfect mental exercise for me -- my brain tends to run really fast (but not always productively -- not by a long shot), and this makes me slow way down and really be present in the moment. Karate does that, too, but the moments move a lot faster, so it's a completely different kind of presence (if that makes any sense). Finally, I've had enough exposure to energy work to be able to work that into my practice. I have a long way to go, but I do regularly experience a very beautiful flow of energy through my body. When it's all working right, I can even feel blockages dissolving and my whole inner body opening up and expanding. Lovely.
I'm so glad I have the opportunity to study both kinds of arts. And it's especially good to get a start on the Tai Chi now; after all, as many of my internal artist-friends like to remind me, we all become Tai Chi players in the end!