In my opinion the concept of softness is perhaps the most misrepresented idea in all of Tai Chi. For many, softness is to be floppy, it is to be loose in both musculature, structure and position. I have lost count of the number of Tai Chi exponents that I have met who had embraced this idea, most of whom could not maintain their positional security when interacting with a partner. So why this confusion?
Many of the training methods of Tai Chi have the explicit purpose of softening and releasing. Indeed, it is one of the primary focuses of the Jibengong in the style. We have methods of release training, where we aim to understand and create a connection to the ‘off switch’ in our muscles, we have sets of specific techniques that directly make our limbs heavy and released! Surely, soft is to be devoid of tension and is to be embraced? Yes … but within a specific context.
It is important when considering any training method that we approach it with a top down viewpoint. What does ‘softness’ actually mean, what is ‘song’, what is release … these are all important questions but first we must ask “Why should we be released, song or soft?”
Tai Chi is dependant upon a certain type of body in order to function both as a martial art and as a health practice. This body is stable, connected and responsive, it is able to move externally and make space internally, it is able to express and receive forces with the entire body and to never act disjointedly. If we are tense in specific muscles then we lose the qualities needed for the Tai Chi Body (shen-fa), we get stuck in our movement and the ‘space’ inside the body is lost. However, these things are also lost if we are floppy like a noodle. When we are floppy we lose connection, sensitivity and responsiveness. Areas of slack limit the immediacy and connectedness of our motion, they cause dense and light areas in the body and we are as disordered as if we were tense, simply with a different root cause.
Imagine a spiders web, it is remarkably flexible, and it is this flexibility that enables a spiders web to perform its function, to catch bugs of significant weight and velocity. But, an important part of that spiders web is how it is pulled taut, so that the spider can perceive the bug that is caught and move to subdue its prey. Imagine if that spiders web was brittle, or pulled too tight? It would break at the slightest strain, this is the error of tension. But equally imagine the web slack and hanging loose, it may well catch a bug but the spider would never know about it, this is the error of slackness. From this idea we can see that our body must be the web – supple, flexible and taut, and then, just like the spider, our brain and CNS can feel and perceive precisely what is going on.
When moving towards the extremes of tension or softness, the web is ineffective, and this is also true of our bodies – although the tense body may break, the slack body won’t tell us anything so neither is preferred. Useful softness is found in the fertile but difficult to manage middle ground, where the softness is found and framed within the context of extension, tautness and connection.
In the early stages of Tai Chi practice we are taught to make the movements large and extended, often called the large frame. This is because we are better able to produce and feel the entire body while in extension. The novice will move with long movements that stretch the tissues of the body from the head to the toes, this will allow the body to ‘map’ itself and feel the connections.
It is within this framework of extension that we should look to find and develop softness. We add training and methods to enable us to feel where unwanted tension lies and focus on releasing that tension to create a quality known as ‘song’(sung). It is a long and drawn out process as we are constantly balancing the reality of release, with the feeling of connection, never letting one or the other win completely. You may be able to imagine the stretched muscle and its internal pulls, now think of releasing the tensions in that pulled muscle while maintaining its pull! Not an easy, nor quick task.
As we progress through our Tai Chi training we may well get smaller and smaller in our movements, as we are able to maintain the depth of connection without the need for long postures and overt extension. This more compact method of Tai Chi is seen in many of the older generation masters as their method became more and more refined. Here, the feeling of extension and of connection is ever present, even in the completely bent arm. At this stage a new focus comes into our minds in how this newly formed network transmits, produces, and directs things. But that is for another article.
For the beginner this compact or shallow way is not the method to persue. For the beginner, we start in extended postures, long open positions and large circular motions. At the same time we train to understand softness within this context, seeking release inside of extension. This release helps to further connect the body, but also it means that we do not have any blockages in our system that will accumulate forces, from our own motion or that of our partners or opponents.
Contextualising for combat combat, tension present in a connected structure will prove to be a great advantage to a skilled and determined attacker. They will feel the tension in your structure and focus on it, taking your balance, striking you in a vulnerable spot or destroying your position.
Softness inside connection also creates another interesting result. Although the general feeling of release is found in the downwards or sinking direction, the very nature of it being framed within connection means that a resultant upwards direction will be felt. This is consequence of the skeleton providing upwards support in the body, and the spanning tissues augmenting that support. We will begin to perceive a balance between the upwards capability found in the connective tissues and skeleton, and the sinking releasing feelings in the soft tissues. Playing with this balance of sinking and rising forces will begin to produce movement and method, true Tai Chi.
So, in summary when practicing Tai Chi start big, start extended and start with a focused tautness in the tissues of the body. Within this tautness begin to find and perceive the tensions that you hold, and resolve them with softening methods. This will produce the ‘Tai Chi Body’ much more quickly that just focusing on release alone without its important counterpoint of extension.