Friday, November 13, 2015

Tai Chi Tip: Relax

If you have ever attended a Tai Chi class, watched an instruction video about Tai Chi, read about Tai Chi, or even heard someone talk about Tai Chi, you have, no doubt, discovered that the concept of relaxation is closely related to the art of Tai Chi.  However, the concept of relaxation in Tai Chi is much different from the image that appears in most peoples' mind when they hear someone say, "Relax."  To many people, relaxation means lying on the sofa reading a book, watching a movie, taking a nap, or doing some other minimal effort activity.  So when a new student is in a Tai Chi class and they are told to relax, while holding some posture that looks like it is straight out of an old Kung Fu movie, there tends to be some confusion.  How can one relax, while standing on one leg?

This confusion has the potential to lead beginners to think that moving the body and holding the postures like a limp noodle is how one must practice Tai Chi if one wishes to maintain relaxation while performing each movement.  However, in Tai Chi, when one is instructed to relax it simply mean to let go of any excess tension, not to let go of all tension.  Our bodies are, after all, a complex system of levers that depend on muscular tension to produce movement.  So it is impossible to move without some muscular tension, but the trick in Tai Chi is to seek the most efficient movement that does not depend on unnecessary tension.  Here is a quick exercise that over-simplifies this concept, but it will help illustrate the difference.  Bring your hands up in front of you like you're a boxer protecting your head, tense up you arms and clench your fists as much as you can.  Now, while maintaining as much of that tension as possible, push one of your fists out in front of you, like your punching something, then bring it back to its starting position.  Did you feel how difficult that was with all that excess tension fighting against your movement?  Now, maintain the same posture, but relax the arms and fists.  They shouldn't go limp, they should simply release any tension that is not necessary for keeping them in place.  Now push the same hand out, just like you did before, only without the excess tension this time, and bring it back.  Way easier, right?  notice how much less energy you spent the second time to perform the same movement?  Do you see how much more efficient it was?  Again, this is over simplifying the concept of relaxation in Tai Chi, but it gives you a good idea of the difference between going through a movement inefficiently versus doing it without wasted energy.  However, the relaxed version is very different from going loosey-goosey and letting your arms flop out and hang like wilting branches from your body.  Good structure was maintained, as it should be in your Tai Chi practice.

If you are having trouble relaxing while practicing or if you find that you are relaxing so much that your arms and body feel limp while you practice, try the following exercise.  Pick your favorite posture from the form that you practice, "Parting the Horse's Mane" for example, and move into this posture like you would in the form.  Then just stay there, don't move to any other postures, just hold that posture.  Try to hold it for five minutes.  While you're holding the posture imagine that your body and limbs are like fire hoses through which something is flowing (light, energy, or whatever you choose to imagine).  Just like the water moving through a fire hose supports the hose from the inside, let the energy flowing through you support your posture (but don't try to control where the energy goes, just let it flow naturally).  Relax your muscles as much as you can without losing the posture and focus on the feeling of being supported from the inside.  Listen to your body as well.  If something becomes uncomfortable (like your shoulders for example) it's often a sign that there is tension hiding there and you should focus on relaxing those muscles and letting the arms be supported from within.  Obviously, the muscles are still holding the arms up, but you'll be surprised by how this simple mental exercise will improve the energy flow and power of your Tai Chi movements, while allowing you to move efficiently, without excess tension......and don't forget to balance your practice, by doing it on both sides.


To Your Health,
Shifu Andrew Plitt

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