Relax and Loosen in Taiji
by Eric Borreson
One of the first principles typically taught in taiji is song (松). A common translation is relax, but this is not sufficient to adequately describe the term. It can also be translated as loose, open, yielding, free, or responsive. It can refer to releasing all muscular tension while maintaining structural alignment. This does not mean to turn limp and soft. It means to be loose and prepared with no unnecessary tension. It means stretching the muscles, releasing tensions throughout the body, and opening the joints from within.
It is difficult to understand how to relax because modern life is not very relaxed. The stress of daily life leads to muscle tension, especially in the neck and shoulders. The first step in learning to relax is to relax the mind. Then the body can learn to relax and release the tension. Removing unnecessary tension releases the inner joy and happiness of the flowing movements of taiji. The first step in developing song is to stand in wuji posture.
Wuji is the posture of neutral. It can be used to relax the mind to help identify areas of tension. To learn how to stand in wuji posture, stand with the feet about hip’s distance apart with a very slight knee bend. Keep the body’s weight evenly distributed on the feet. Start from a military attention posture; chest out, shoulders back, stomach in, and lower back arched. To relax into wuji, let the shoulders relax down and slightly forward to allow the chest to sink. Let the abdomen relax out and slightly tuck in the pelvis. Imagine bending the knees and sitting down, but stopping after about an inch (about 2-3 cm). Slightly push in the chin to avoid the tendency to let the head lean forward. This allows the natural body structure to provide support instead of using the muscles.
Keep the body symmetrical with the shoulders level and arms even. Being in alignment means that the internal organs are in the proper place and the skeleton and ligaments can do their job of supporting the body. This allows your body to function normally. Visualize a string connecting the crown of the head with the heavens and extending down through the body toward the center of the earth. Mentally pull on the string in both directions. Let all the muscles relax to release any unnecessary tension. Stand long enough to become familiar with the posture to help you know what it should be like when practicing your taiji.
A Simple Exercise for Song
Song means to open up your joints so the qi can flow. What does that really mean? It means to stretch the ligaments that hold the joints together. Tension fades away when the joints are stretched and opened. The flow of qi improves and movement becomes easier and smoother. How do we do that? Here is a simple exercise to help learn about song.
Look at the inside of the wrists. At the base of the palm, right where it joins with the wrist, there is a line, or fold, in the skin. You can usually see this line on both hands. Bring the wrists together, palms facing each other, and align the two lines. Bring the hands together in a prayer position. Look at the finger tips. For many people, the fingertips will not be even. One hand is larger than the other. Note which hand is smaller. If they seem to be the same size, note which hand is the non-dominant hand.
Now, focus on the smaller or non-dominant hand. Start with the little finger. Look at the first knuckle, the one closest to the palm. Visualize that the joint is expanding and stretching. Keep your attention there for about 5 seconds. Move to the next joint on the little finger. Visualize that joint is expanding and stretching. Focus for about 5 seconds again. Move your attention to the last joint in the finger and repeat.
Move your attention to the next finger, the ring finger. Look at the first knuckle and do the same visualization. Follow this with the rest of the knuckles. Move to the middle finger, then the pointing finger, and then the thumb. Do the same visualization for each knuckle. Now, visualize the entire hand. Imagine that the whole hand is expanding, that it is growing with each heartbeat.
Now, line up the hands again from the line at the wrist. Most people find that their hand has grown a little bit. The size of the bones certainly didn’t increase in that short time. The increase has to come from the space between the bones, the joints. This is one aspect of song.
Taiji is practiced at a slow pace for many reasons. One reason is to make it easier to identify any areas of tightness in the muscles and joints. Slow movement allows us to feel every muscle as it contracts and loosens. Quick movements hide the tension.
Use this same visualization technique for the rest of the body. Don’t worry about the measuring or comparing here. You know it works. Start with the shoulders. Open up the shoulder joints during taiji warm-ups. Focus on the shoulders during forms practice. It may be necessary to pause once in a while to bring your attention back to the shoulders. Spend several practice sessions on this until it feels natural.
The next time you practice, continue this visualization for the spine, hips, knees, etc. Then extend this technique for the entire body. The ability to continuously maintain song throughout the body will develop with practice.
Eric Borreson, a student and teacher, finds teaching tai chi, qigong, and meditation to be a path to a more meaningful life. Eric is the founder and director of Meditation in Motion, specializing in teaching about living healthier and happier lives. He teaches tai chi, qigong, and meditation at the prestigious Heartland Spa, a top 10 destination spa, located in Gilman, IL. In addition, he teaches tai chi (Yang 24, Sun-style tai chi, and Dr. Lam’s Tai Chi for Arthritis and Tai Chi for Diabetes) at other venues. He conducts workshops and teaches private lessons on request. He writes a weekly wellness column at http://eric-taichi.blogspot.com.