Tai Chi: The Ultimate in Relaxation
When learning tai chi, from your very first day, you will be told to relax.
Tai chi and relaxation go hand in hand and are inseparable – during practice, you must focus every moment to develop the quality and mindset of complete relaxation in order to achieve success in this art.
The Three Pillars of Tai Chi
There are really only three elements or principles (known as the “Three Pillars of Tai Chi” that define this art. They are:
- Use intention to guide your movement, not external force (Yi bu li)
- Letting go of all physical and mental tension (Fangsong)
- Continually spiraling full body movement (Chansijin)
In this article we will focus on the second element above, “letting go” of all physical and mental tension, hence, “the Ultimate Form of Relaxation”. I will write articles on the other two pillars at a later date.
What is relaxation?
To understand why relaxation is so important when practicing tai chi, we must first define what relaxation is.
Normally, we might think of relaxation as taking a break from the stress we encounter during our normal daily life related to our work, relationships, finances, driving in traffic, and any number of situations we are faced with.
To this end, we have many ways to distract ourselves from these situations – working out at the gym, taking a bike ride, walking on the beach, listening to fine music, reading a book, etc. And all of these are wonderful ways to take our minds off of stress temporarily.
What is tai chi relaxation?
In tai chi practice, the definition of relaxation is a bit different from the commonly accepted one. I will explain.
In tai chi, relaxation is the result of focusing your full intention to “let go” (the Chinese term is “fangsong”) of every ounce of tension in your body and mind. It is a very conscious effort with total mental focus. The level of activity of the mind is at its greatest capacity.
During practice, we continually monitor our whole body, paying attention to even the tiniest bit of tension. Then, we focus our mind (intention) on that area of tension and mentally dissolve it, or “let it go”. Beginning at the top of your head all the way down through the bottom of your feet and into the ground, let go.
At first, this requires a lot of effort to keep your mind focused on this task. With time and practice, this gets easier. And eventually, you can relax/let go fully in a moment by command.
Effect of relaxation on the mind
Another consideration of letting go is how the mind is affected. When we are practicing tai chi’s physical postures and movements, our mind is occupied fully on what we are doing – where each part of our body is and relative to every other part, full body coordination, balance, etc. – we are in the moment. The result of this is our mind is not bombarded with the constant chatter (ie – monkey mind) that fills our head all day and night. So this is a kind of vacation from the mental chatter as well as physical stress.
Why is relaxation so important for tai chi?
Whatever your reasons for practicing tai chi (see article Why Do Tai Chi?), whether for improving your health, healing sickness, injuries, or pain, cultivating a calm mind, self defense, etc. “letting go” is the key!
Relaxation: The key to health
The main reason for this emphasis on relaxation in tai chi is related to ancient Chinese thought about what constitutes health.
Traditional medicine in China believed that health was associated with the natural, unimpeded circulation of chi (vital energy) within the body. And that any place in the body where the chi was “stuck” (ie – not moving or blocked), that was where sickness and disease originated.
The ancients compared this to a flowing river. As long as the water is flowing, there is nowhere for disease to attach itself or breed. When there is damming in the flow of water, bacteria and disease grow.
The effect of relaxation on the body
As a result, the whole purpose/focus of the ancient Chinese health care system was to locate and unblock the chi where it was stuck, and therefore reestablish the “normal” or natural chi flow. Then, there would be no place for sickness to take hold, and the body would heal itself.
Tai Chi, Chinese Medicine, and Health
In the creation of tai chi, these factors were considered deeply, and fused together to develop a martial art that was also a health and healing system and a way to establish longevity.
Relaxation and Martial Art
Lastly, we must discuss the role of relaxation on tai chi as a martial art, or system of self defense. We will look at two aspects of this: the physical movements, and the calm/still mind.
Relaxation and Self Defense
When engaged in combat, one must collect all of their resources as one and apply them in a moment’s notice. In order to do this, one must be perfectly relaxed. This also allows for the natural chi circulation, which is the source of power for martial arts.
Relaxation and the Calm Mind
Also of the utmost importance in tai chi for combat is that the mind is still and calm so that it can respond quickly in what may be a life and death situation.
An exercise for you to cultivate pure relaxation
How to Stand: a tai chi exercise for relaxation
Each command below allows you to relax more and more deeply, because you are aligning your body with gravity.
- Stand with your feet parallel and shoulder width apart.
- Imagine rice paper under your heels – don’t crush it!
- Breathe naturally in and out through your nose.
- Gently lift up the top of your head as if suspended from above.
- Relax your facial muscles and smile a little.
- Eyes look forward. Ears listen behind.
- Press the tip of your tongue lightly against the roof of your mouth behind your upper teeth.
- Touch your lips and teeth together lightly.
- Stretch up/lengthen the back of your neck, lower jaw slightly tucked in.
- Relax your shoulders, sink your elbows, and let your arms and hands hang comfortably by your sides.
- Fingers extended and slightly curved, holding them slightly apart, as if there is a small cotton ball between each pair of them.
- Relax/hollow/empty your chest.
- Relax your upper back muscles and let your shoulder blades spread apart.
- Relax your stomach and lower back muscles and let your lower spine straighten naturally.
- Allow your pelvis to relax in the neutral position, without any flexion or extension.
- Relax, sink, and loosen your hips.
- Keep the area between your legs round, expanding outward. Do not allow your knees to collapse inward.
- Keep your knees springy and in line with your toes.
- The soles of your feet, heels, and toes all remain in contact with the ground
Now it is important to understand that what you accomplish through your tai chi practice, you need to incorporate that in your daily life. This is what it is really all about!
My teacher, Grandmaster Wang Xi’an, summed all of this up in a simple quote:
“Outside, perfectly calm. Inside, like water boiling up.”
Here is an article from Harvard Medical on the many benefits of tai chi for your health and healing.
For a comprehensive online course in the fundamentals of tai chi click here .