There are many benefits of taiji that are well worth discussing but the most profound benefit of all by far is relaxation. At the simplest level, relaxation dissolves physical tension in the body, resulting in improved mobility, increased range of motion, and joint health among many other great benefits, but when relaxation becomes the main focus of the practice, we begin to discover parts of ourselves that we didn’t even know existed. This is one of the great promises of taijiquan.
Not only is relaxation a benefit, but it is one of the core principles of taiji, and a skill to be cultivated and developed. Relaxation begins with self awareness. We first have to become aware of where we are holding onto tension, tightness, and stiffness in the body. The most obvious places that we hold tension is in our muscles, and that’s usually were we begin; learning to identify tension in our muscles.
Most people believe that they are already quite relaxed. You come home after a hard days work and you just want to relax right? Chill out, take it easy, wind down, and rest. Is that relaxation?
The problem with this type of relaxation it is that it only serves to take our mind off the things that stress us out. When we get stressed, we tighten up. Stress is a contraction. When we are really stressed it affects our breathing. We hold our breath, we compress, contract, freeze. Its fight flight or freeze. Every time you get stressed you leave an impression in your consciousness, and the bigger the stress the bigger the imprint. Some of these impressions can stay for days, weeks, months, or years. Some are so deep that we carry them for a lifetime. We become bonded to them. At the end of the day when we come home and relax, we are really only addressing surface level tension. I would call this passive relaxation. Taiji is active relaxation.
What most people imagine as relaxation is hardly relaxation at all. Most of this type of relaxation is just taking a break from thinking and solving problems, which is what most people do for a living. True relaxation is a much deeper and more profound process. To become relaxed one has to pay very close attention to the body. To release anything we must first become aware of what it is that we want to release.
The reality is that almost nobody is relaxed, even if they think they are. Even when people are feet up chilling out, they might think they are relaxed, but they’re not. I’ve been studying relaxation for more than a decade. I’ve spent thousands of hours trying to relax more and more, and even after ten years and thousands of hours, I still need to focus on relaxation. In taiji relaxation is a skill that requires continuous development.
Have you ever looked at someone and thought to yourself “that person looks tense”. Its usually obvious – shoulders raised, stiff upper brow, and an intense (in-tension) look on their face. Their body looks rigid and stiff. You can tell that they have dealt with struggle. Most people have no idea how much tension they are carrying in their body, because tension builds up slowly, gradually over time, and we adapt to it.
Some people pay money to have a massage therapist remove tension from their muscles. I know this because I have a background as a bodyworker. With taiji you can reap the benefits of a massage without a therapist, essentially you massage yourself through movement. The way we move the body in taiji brings fluidity back to every nook and cranny of the muscular skeletal system. Taiji is in fact better than a massage, because although massage relieves tension on the surface level, it doesn’t take long for the tension to return. By having someone else do the work for us, we don’t correct the underlying cause of the tension which is almost always internal.
In order to identify a problem deep inside the body, we have to be able to see and feel deep inside the body. Relaxation enables us to see and feel beneath the surface level which in turn allows for a deeper exploration of our internal world.
Once we identify the tension we have to practice letting go of it. Ultimately this is what relaxation is all about; letting go. The process is to seek and find tension inside the body, notice it for what it is, and release it by letting go. In the beginning we can quickly identify that perhaps our shoulders are tense. This is one of the main muscle groups where people store tension. So we let go of the tension, and the shoulders sink down. They literally drop downwards away from the neck when we release and let go. This is how it starts. Later we will learn to identify tension in the back, the neck, the face, the upper arms, wrists, fingers, eyelids, and so on. All taiji practitioners will have a process of scanning every part of the body for tension.
All tension is a type of “holding on”. It begins as a reaction to internal or external stimuli, for example, you have a thought about something bad happening and your stomach tightens, or when you become frustrated with someone or something you feel a build up of pressure, as if you are holding onto something. The feeling of pressure building up, or tightness in some part of the body, is resistance. This “resistance” is what we are attempting to let go of.
Here’s how tension takes root in the body. Over time we experience hundreds and thousands if not millions of micro-tension events that create muscle memories. If we are dealing with an intense life situation we can spend hours or even days in vacillating states of prolonged tension. Whether you are in a stressful state frequently or only experiencing micro tensions, the result is always the same; a gradual transformation of the body and mind from a state of increased flow into a state of increased resistance. One the flip side of this, every time you let go, you let flow.
You might say that some resistance is necessary, and you’d be right. Muscles for example rely on expansion and contraction in order to function, but that’s not the kind of resistance that leads to ill health. There is a harmonious intuitive balance between the various muscle groups of the body that becomes out of balance through overuse or underuse. Someone who sits at a desk all day on a computer will have tighter hip flexors for example than someone who is on their feet all day, and the person who becomes top heavy from working our hard at the gym will have reduced range of motion in the shoulders as they tighten up. For optimum health what we want is balance across all systems. Without self awareness and identification of tension in our structure, imbalances will multiply unchecked.
We’ve covered tension in the body, but what about tension in the mind? Does the mind have trouble letting go? Does the mind become stiff or rigid? Does the mind develop a type of muscle memory? You bet it does! The mind the primary antagonist. Of course when you train the body and work the muscles they become tense, but one of the main sources of tension in the body comes from a stressed out mind. The good news is that when we develop the habit of letting go of tension as we find it in the body, the letting go process becomes a skill. We use the mind to let go of tension in the body and in the process we train the mind to develop a habit of letting go.
Imagine being able to quickly let go of shame, guilt, anger, fear, or grief. These emotions are all born of the mind. As we practice letting go of tension in the body through taiji, we naturally and effortlessly become better at letting go of all mental emotional junk. All of the fear based emotions just described, along with all of the other emergency emotions, quietly dissipate over time becoming occasional as opposed to regular, leading to increased balance, harmony and joy. The mind becomes more balance as we begin to view the world through the lens of taiji. As we relaxed the inside, we develop a more relaxed and balanced attitude towards ourselves and others. We become more at-ease.
The more we are at-ease the more being at-ease becomes our dominant state. The little things that used to bother us barely affect us anymore, and we are better positioned to handle major upsets. We become a sea of calm. This is because the way we are most of the time is the way we are most of the time. The more calm we become the more we become calm.
Enhanced relaxation results in an inner feeling of tranquility, harmony, peace, and flow. When we become relaxed we can move more quickly. We are more fluid. When something is rigid, stiff, tense, it cannot be as quick as something that is already moving, flowing, graceful. With relaxation the muscles, tendons, and joints in the body become connected and can then move as one. If there is relaxation from your hand to you foot they can operate as if there is no space between them. When one part of the body is rigid, there is a delay between parts. When something hard meets something soft there must be resistance, just as the cliff resists the ocean. Water does not resist water, they unite together and the power becomes magnified. When you relax you become like the ocean.
As defined in physics “Relaxation is the return of a system undergoing dissipation to an initial state of equilibrium after being displaced from it.” To be dissipated is to be scattered. Hav e you ever felt that way before? Scattered? All over the place? Our of sorts? Welcome to the human condition. We have all become displaced from ourselves in more ways than can be counted. Taiji is ultimately about coming back to an initial state of equilibrium after being displaced from it, and relaxation is the method.