Relaxation in Tai Chi

One of tai chi’s distinguishing characteristics is the challenge it presents communicating all the subtle concepts contained within it.  You’d be hard-pressed to find a tai chi blog or book anywhere that doesn’t have some version of the sentence, “This concept is difficult to describe.”  A direct example of this challenging aspect of tai chi is the fact that I’ve re-written this introductory paragraph about ten times now, and I’m still not at all satisfied with it.

The concept of “relaxation” is especially challenging, because it’s often one of the things the new student is chasing after.  “I feel so tense all day and I want to relax!”  It’s one of the advertised benefits of tai chi and the way we go about teaching and doing it ought to lead to a greater feeling of relaxation after we leave the class than we were in it. 

This is of course easier said than done, and the first few lessons are usually frustrating in this respect.  This is because we’re learning new things, figuring things out, our brains are working overtime to take in all the new information and trying to do well.  Trust me – I understand it.  You’ll notice, though, as you attend more lessons, that the feeling of relaxation and overall well-being increases the more we learn and do, because we constantly review things and go over things we already know and are comfortable with.  That’s on-purpose.

It’s the same with many such skills.  We’re comfortable driving our cars; but when we were first learning to drive, we were quite overwhelmed with all the new stimulus, the requirements, the desire to do well, stay safe, become acquainted with all the controls of the car, the rules of the road and so on.  Tai chi is very much like driving.  You learned to drive (else how would you have got to class?), so give yourself credit that you can learn to do tai chi – the frustrating feelings will pass and what replaces it will be the comfort of knowing and doing.

So we’re there to learn how to relax, and we think we’ve got it.  Then along comes a guy like me explaining how and why we do postures and transitions like “Ward Off” or “Wild Horse Parts Mane” or “Raise Hands and Step Up,” and I say something like “squeeze” or “compress.”  Why am I squeezing and getting tense?  Why aren’t we relaxing?  It’s even worse, I suspect, when I interact with students and tell them “Okay now press – no, not with strength!” or “Push – no, too tense!”  And I can see the frustration in your faces when you interact with me and I feel mysteriously relaxed and immovable at the same time.

Trust me when I tell you that the way you feel with me is exactly the same way I feel when I’m interacting with my own mentors.  That stiff, wooden feeling or that weak, collapsing feeling you feel when you’re interacting with me is exactly how I feel when I’m interacting with them.  Their ability to sense and interact is developed to a higher degree, with respect to me, than mine is with respect to you.  My job is to get you to where you need someone at their level in order to grow further.  It’s a natural part of “the process” I keep saying we should trust.

Grandmaster Yang Jun defines “relaxation” in tai chi as “midway between ‘stiff’ and ‘limp.’” This is entirely correct but also unsatisfyingly brief.  What does that “midway” feel like?  How do I use it?  How does it feel when interacting with someone who isn’t cooperating?  How do I get “there” from where I am now?  And why does Phil keep giving me seemingly contradictory instructions to “relax” and “compress?”  How do I do both at the same time?  The rest of this post will attempt to explain.

Have you ever been sitting or standing at work or in the kitchen and suddenly noticed that your shoulders or neck or jaw was almost painfully clenched and you didn’t know why?  In order to explain what “midway between ‘stiff’ and ‘limp’” feels like, we have to learn to pay attention to what our bodies tell us.  It’s one of the things I keep harping on in class about qigong, and it’s why I also harp on the importance of practice at home.  In class, you can’t completely pay attention to how you feel and what your body is telling you, because you’re also trying to follow along and pay attention to what the windbag in the black t-shirt and sweats in front is banging on about.  Your mind is in at least two places.  At home, once you’ve begun to do a qigong set on your own and you can do it without “Windbag” telling you how things go, you can quiet down and pay more attention to how you feel. 

Even this is a challenge sometimes, though, because it’s a skill we’re actively conditioned to suppress as we grow up.  We’re told to “Push past the pain,” “Ignore the pain – go for the goal” and other such nonsense, especially if we were in sports in school.  We’re conditioned to ignore those little signals that get louder and louder as we get older.  We’re conditioned to believe that paying attention to every little twinge and knot is weakness, and that enduring pain while pressing forward is virtuous.  And then we wonder why we end up the way we are in middle age.  So it’s hard to re-learn to pay attention to those signals we’re given, and we’re reluctant to do so after a lifetime of being told that doing so is for whiny hypochondriacs; which is nonsense, but it’s oddly persuasive nonsense.

Starting off with qigong at home, we begin to pay attention to how we feel.  I learned to do this in the following way:  Start by standing still in the “Wuji” position, breathing deeply (filling the lungs from the bottom up) and actively “take inventory” of how each part of your body feels, working from the floor up.  How do your feet feel in your shoes (or on the floor if you’re not wearing shoes)?  How do your calf muscles feel?  Knees?  Thighs?  Hips?  Moving on up to the top, how does my neck feel (and why are my neck muscles so tense?)  How about my jaw – why is it clenched?  Having a simple system to take inventory like this is a necessary first step, and standing still in the “Wuji” position is the easiest way to do it – there’s no payoff in making it any harder. 

After a few days (that’s really all it’ll take) of this standing-still-and-taking-inventory business, you will probably notice a few things.  The first thing you may notice is that sense of “settling” I keep banging on about – a feeling of solidity in your legs and a lowering of your center-of-gravity.  You may notice that at some point, one or more muscles in your leg or your butt will suddenly “relax” or your shoulders will un-shrug all of their own.  It happens all the time but you’ve probably never noticed it until now.  Pay attention to it!  What’s happening is that your body is getting into the most efficient way of standing – if it doesn’t need this-or-that muscle to be tense, that muscle will relax almost all by itself.  Don’t “correct” this, but pay attention to it, acknowledge it and let it happen.  This is part of your body healing a lifetime of standing and moving unnaturally.  The body has a lot of different healing processes, and this is one of them.

How long should you do this?  Until you get bored.  This is a serious, no-b.s. answer.  No one does anything well when they’re bored or distracted; however, once you begin feeling changes and differences in your body, it ought to pique your curiosity and encourage you to stay at it for a little longer each time.  The time it takes until it gets boring will get longer and longer – how long is entirely up to you. 

Once you get bored it’s time to start moving.  Do whatever qigong you like or know best – it truly doesn’t matter at this point.  What does matter at this point is that you’re paying attention to how you feel (which you learned while standing still), you’re feeling how your weight shifts, how your feet and legs handle and adjust to weight being transferred (“Big Bear,” “Black Dragon Shows Claws,”) etc.  You’re starting to feel the difference between when your muscles are engaged and when they’re relaxed (“Wise Owl,” “Pull 9 Oxen by the Tail,”), you’re starting to feel how different muscles and tendons engage as we do each exercise (“Nine Ghosts Draw Swords,” “Massage Kidneys and Touch Floor”), you’re starting to play with improving balance (“Crane,” “Leg Swings”), you’re starting to feel how tai chi moves work and feel (“Grinding Corn,” “Advancing and Retreating”), and you may even begin to perceive how “qi” moves through your body, and how you can begin to manipulate it yourself (“Turn the Water Wheel,” “Polish Mirror”).

You get all this from qigong at home, where it’s quiet and there’s no stimulus you didn’t put there.  You don’t make these sorts of discoveries in class, and just like no one can go to the bathroom for you, no one can learn how you feel for you.

The business of “how we can begin to manipulate ‘qi’” goes into doing the tai chi form.  If you recall from the discussion on yin-and-yang, tai chi is (or ought to be) soft, hard, both and neither, all at the same time.  Saying so sounds absurd until you actually learn how to do it.  I can tell you from experience that if you spend enough time doing push-hands, you get a sense for what “too hard” and “too soft” are.  We’ll experiment with it a bit in class soon and I’ll try to show you what each feels like – when I do push-hands with students I purposefully give them an example of “me being wrong” to see if they pick up on it and act on it.  Push-hands is a sort of “laboratory” for perceiving, experimenting and discovery.  There’s never any need to apologize if you push me over – nine times out of ten I’m expecting you to, and that tenth, time, well…I ain’t perfect.

Briefly speaking though, “too hard” feels like working the bar of a turnstile – you can’t bend it, but push it the right way and it just moves almost as if on its own – it’s the same feeling pushing someone who’s all tensed-up.  On the other hand, “too soft” feels like getting a “limp fish” handshake.  The other person just sort of collapses.  It’s disorienting at first – you get this feeling like “I could push this person into the next county if I wanted to.” When I show you how “effortless” it feels when you correctly apply a posture/transition against me, hopefully you’re beginning to sense not only how it feels to throw or push me, but also how the move feels inside you. 

Meanwhile, take a look at this video:

Grandmaster Yang Jun (in black) shows how “hard/soft at the same time” looks and works.  Parts of him are hard, parts are soft, and this transforms and changes from one side to another throughout the presentation.  “Hard” and “soft” flow to wherever they need to go, and wherever his “center” happens to be, it’s impenetrable and undisturbed.  It looks like he’s using strength to throw his opponent – look carefully and you’ll see he’s using his structure.  He gets his opponent all “off-plumb and cross-threaded” before he throws with a simple twist of his waist.

Lastly, note how he’s “neither stiff nor limp.”  This video is an excellent example of what “relaxation” looks like in tai chi.  It’s hard when it needs to be, and soft when it needs to be.  Early in our journey, we spend the most time on “soft” because it’s the more important thing to learn.  And we learn “soft” first, not because it’s the only thing we do, but because it’s necessary in order to put “hard” to work the right way.

There’s a flow to it, it involves the whole body, and it requires awareness; at first an awareness of how we feel, then as we get better, awareness of how the other person feels.  This of course takes time, but the key to unlocking it is practice and self-discovery at home.

If it looks daunting (and just so we’re clear, I’ve not done push-hands with Grandmaster Yang yet and I’m daunted by the prospect!), a story might be a bit encouraging.  One of the chapters of my “Instructor Guide” has an interview with Grandmaster Yang, where he tells the interviewer that when he was in his teens and early 20s, nearly every tai chi player he met could push him around effortlessly.  It took a long time for him to make the discovery of how to move with unity and relaxation and “intent.”  It tells me that this is all part of the process and – how many times have I said it? – to “trust the process.”