Herb Blurb
  • Northeast Wisconsin
  • October 2011
Written by  Andrew Mertens

Relax: an important principle in Tai Chi chuan

The first and most important of the principles of the Chinese art of Tai Chi chuan is "relax." This is a word that we use perhaps when we want an agitated person to calm down or to explain what we are doing on vacation or on the couch. It speaks of something being loosened, made less dense or less severe. My teacher Mike likes to use the Chinese word "sung" (perhaps how you could spell it if it were English). We have no English word that translates. It's described as "sinking with gravity, like hair falling from an untied bun," "curtains hanging from a rod" or "fruit falling from a tree." "Relax" is all of these things.

When we come to the preparation stance the first thing we do is apply this principle to everything we are at that moment. We relax every muscle and tendon in the body. We relax our breathing and sink into the floor. We let go of any emotional upset and quiet the mind. We just relax more...and more. I initially had a hard time with the idea that tension is a choice. I did not think that I chose my arm numbness or the pain in my shoulder. I choose to be pain free, but if I didn't choose the tension, who did? I remember reading somewhere, "There is nothing wrong with your body; it is just the way you are wearing it." If tension is a choice I could choose the opposite. I could relax. I realized that I was the one leaning forward and holding up my shoulders. I began to practice "relax" for a few minutes every day and found that I could always relax more. My shoulders began to drop and the pain and numbness lessoned. I could see my image in the mirror changing. I began to notice that the energy I was using to hold up my shoulders could be used to do other things in my life. I became less tired, less grumpy. The most profound thing I have found practicing this art is that there is no end. No matter how relaxed I think I am if my teacher asks me to relax more, I can. When I'm teaching a class and I ask my students to relax more, I relax more. Who is the asker and who is the relaxer? I don't worry about it. I just relax more.

Walking on Thin Ice

Try this Tai Chi exercise. Stand comfortably with the weight divided evenly between your feet. Be sure to be barefoot or wearing flat shoes. Do not wear anything with a heel. Very slowly begin to sink into your right leg, bending your knee, creasing your hip joint, and dropping your lower back. Fill your right leg completely and float up your left foot. Find your balance. Step your left foot forward placing the heel on the floor with no weight. Feel into the floor as if it were thin ice. If the ice is not safe it could crack just with the weight of your foot but you are safely standing solid in your right leg. When you can determine that you are balanced with an empty step begin to slowly shift weight into your left foot. See if you can do it in increments like 10 percent, 20 percent. When you reach the halfway point and if the ice were not safe you would be getting wet, but since it is not really thin ice keep shifting until you get all of the weight in the left foot. Sink into your left foot until you can float up your right foot and step forward empty with the heel touching first. Repeat several times.

If you find this difficult do not be discouraged. I have seen people who could not do it at all have 100 percent improvement in 6 weeks of daily Tai Chi practice. I have seen people throw away their canes or walkers. You may use the wall or a chair if you find balance is a problem. You should see improvements with daily practice. The key is the first principle of Tai chi: relax. Also very helpful is the second principle: Body upright. More on this next month.

Andrew Mertens is the director of the Oshkosh Tai Chi Center and a certified Quantum Energetics practitioner. He holds a bachelor's degree in music from Lawrence University and a bachelor of science degree from the New Physiology Institute. He is also a professional bassist and founding member of The Jazz Orgy.

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