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What Does The Term 'Relax' Mean in T'ai Chi Ch'uan? How Do I Do It?
To relax in T’ai Chi is more than just what people commonly think of when they use the word relax. To relax is our natural inheritance. We are born with the ability to relax. But we often leave it behind early in life, in our pursuit of other personal needs or cravings.
At a basic level, we do not relax because we strive for food, safety or social acceptance, or the need to be as good as or better than others. After we achieve these, we often tell ourselves we will be able to relax.
In T’ai Chi, relaxation is more than the relaxation that people may choose when they sit on a sofa watching television. It involves the mind, emotions, and body in different ways, and requires a certain degree of reconciliation of inner contradictions, mentally, emotionally, and physically.
To understand relaxation in the T’ai Chi Ch’uan sense, it helps to ask yourself why is it so important to T’ai Chi and what function it serves in martial arts, health, fitness, or self-cultivation.
T’ai Chi’s first function is as a martial art. The relaxation is essential for a martial artist to be more flexible and more powerful. Being relaxed makes the muscles and joints and mind freer and more adaptable. When they are relaxed, the muscles and joints do not work against each other and can be mobilized to act in concert. The whole becomes more than the sum of its parts.
One of the goals in T’ai Chi Ch’uan is to link one’s internal strength from the torso to the extremities and from the feet to the top of the head and out to the fingers. This is achieved in part by a wave-like or pulsing of relaxation. It is not just stretching an arm or a leg or a joint, but the entire body.
Some refer to the body being like a bow, even five bows represented by the two arms, two legs and the torso. Some refer to there being many more bows throughout the body that are activated in T’ai Chi practice.
In drawing a bow, there is a stretching that requires relaxing and at the same time a tension. When the arrow is released, the bow and the bowstring are released and lose a certain vibrancy.
The stretching and relaxing in T’ai Chi Ch’uan occurs vertically, horizontally, and circularly. For instance, in the torso there is a pulling upward by the lifting of the top of the head and lifting the back.
At the same time, there is a pulling downward at the base of the spine, which creates traction for a healthy and flexible back. When the arm is extended, it stretches outward, but by sinking the elbow and settling the shoulders, there is a counter stretch.
This kind of stretching is increased by silk reeling action, which involves a spiral twisting in the arms, legs, and torso by "relaxed," positive, counter stretches that feel like squeezes. The stretches are the Yang counterpoint of the Yin relaxation.
This stretching opens up the body, improves circulation, and massages the nervous system. It also helps to generate energy, or qi, which is created by the interaction of Yin and Yang.
These same functions apply for other uses of T’ai Chi Ch’uan for health, fitness, and self-cultivation.
A good way to get the idea of the kind of relaxed that T’ai Chi Ch’uan uses is to think of the relaxed nature of water. It is soft, changeable, and also powerful. Its power is derived in part from the way it is contained, for example, by a dam or the banks of a river.
If you can envision a sealed plastic bag filled with water, you can see the fluidity of the water and how it reacts when it is squeezed, and when it is trying to move to another location. When it uses force, the force is strong. Yet it is always true to its relaxed nature.
As human beings, we are filled with fluids and energy, and as we walk or exercise, we are exerting a certain amount of force on the fluids and energy in our bodies.
In T’ai Chi Ch’uan, we are creating energy and redistributing it just as we squeeze and press the blood and other fluids in our body. This can create a lot of energy that we can exert.
However, if we are tense in many local places, this limits the flow of energy and the way it is massaged. This in turn limits the force that we can exert.
The practice of T’ai Chi Ch’uan helps to unblock these local tensions. In fact, the goal of T’ai Chi can be said to unblock these tensions and their mental and emotional sources.
Of course, this process is not easy and as complex human beings, we have many subtle tensions and contradictions to overcome day by day and even hour by hour. There are even multiple layers of tension that we can shed, some of which we have to keep shedding for a long period of time, or what sometimes feels like forever. Some lessons we have to keep relearning.
The key to accomplishing this relaxation, and reclaiming our natural inheritance, is our ability to be aware. In order to relax, we first have to be aware of the tension and what we are doing.
One technique is to poll the body for tension and when you find any, just be aware of it without trying to relax it. After a short period of time, you may find there is a disconnection between that tension and whatever was going on in your mind to cause the tension.
The tension no longer has a present reason to be tense. The tension feels disconnected or suspended. Still, just be aware of it for a while and it will be possible to easily release it. If you try to relax the tension too quickly, it can be a case of using force against force. In other words, making yourself relax can be an extension of your tension.
One of the reasons that people feel so good when they are doing T’ai Chi Ch’uan is that the movements are relaxing, even if not done very correctly. This is because the nature of the movements tends to naturally stretch the muscles, tendons, and ligaments.Go to Top of page
Lots of other activities give the benefits of stretching, but none do it exactly like T’ai Chi Ch’uan because in T’ai Chi, it involves the entire body, not just arms or limbs or other segments. The more a practitioner can connect the whole body in his or her practice, the more relaxation can be implemented.
This a continuing process. In the beginning, small steps can be made. But in the course of one’s practice, one finds that one can eventually make long strides. There is no end to one’s progress.—Marvin Smalheiser