The originators and developers of Tai Chi likely had the goal of creating good fighter in mind when creating the training practices of the art. But many soon realised that, not only were some the attributes created by Tai Chi useful for combat, they were also useful for health. Indeed, many of the methods of health and wellness were required before the fighter could truly utilize the arts combative side after all, what use is a sick or immobile fighter? The training methods of Tai Chi are designed to produce a number of different effects, one of which is the identification and relaxation of improper tensions and stiffness. This is not only useful for the fighter, allowing them to move with great efficiency, but is also highly benefitial for our health.
Perhaps the most widely known phrase related to the relaxation we encounter in Tai Chi is the idea called ‘song’. If you were to walk into any reputable Tai Chi school anywhere in the world, you would most probably hear the teacher talking about this concept at some point. In some schools, it is the entire focus of the training and there is a belief that without this quality, what you are doing ceases to be Tai chi.
Sung is the concept and principle of softening the tissues around the frame created by the skeleton. It is the sinking direction expressed in the tissues that is balanced by the rising direction expressed through the bones. Sung essentially means that the tissue is as released and soft as it can be, even in extension, while performing a given movement or method. It is one of the concepts reqponsible for the reputation of Tai Chi being a 'Soft' art. We are using just enough energy to maintain posture, frame or movement and the result is that the body free to act in accordance with the conditions.
In the internal arts the act of softening the tissue is often described as the act of 'Releasing'. It is not simply enough to demand that someone ‘relax’, for the majority of people I have taught, try as they might, relaxation is not something they are used to feeling. Generally, even when a student feels that they are fully relaxed the teacher is able to teach a further process of release with careful instruction.
A good instructor will be able to give the student a few tricks and methods to guide, or sometimes force, the body into a relaxed state. These methods are unique to the many lines of internal art and each teacher will often have a favourite trick up their sleeve to deal with tense muscles or a stuck posture. Some of these ideas and tricks include leading the relaxation with breathing or allowing the offending musculature to fatigue so that it essentially ‘gives up’. Some teachers like to physically press on trigger points to help the student identify the root causes of tension, I have even known some teachers to actually strike these points of tension to release them, striking with ther fist of elbow deep into the offending muscle.
The primary method I like to use is something a little less drastic! I tend to ask the student to focus their attention on the outwards phase of the breathing cycle. This part of breathing is closely linked to release and it can be used as a way to ‘trick’ the body into relaxing. We see this phase of the breathing cycle used whenever someone is tense or upset. When told to take a deep breath, it is on the out breath that the person will release all of the built up tension.
In the practice of Tai Chi, a focus on the out breath will connect you to this same mechanicsm. The movements of Tai Chi are intelligently designed and will often will follow an opening / closing or rising / falling sequence. The use of the out breath to release the tissues during the closing or falling phases of movement is a great way to ‘trick’ the body into giving up its bound tension. This process is one that we can go deeper and deeper into, the fruits of which we can see in the high level Tai Chi adepts whom maintain a constant state of 'realease' no matter what they are doing.
Another very common method of guiding release in Tai Chi is to slow to the movements of the practice down. The practitioner will be asked to perform a certain ‘nei gong’ or ‘form loop’ that will immediately highlight and work directly on the affected area, perhaps taking five minutes to run through two or so movements. Slowing movement to this snail’s pace has two effects on our bodies, effects that become almost immediately apparent when the practitioner performs the work for any period.
Firstly, the slow movements will highlight the points of tension by creating an ache in the tense muscles. As the practice continues, that tension will fatigue and most practitioners will want to stop the practice and shake their arms out. It is important that we move past this tension however, and allow ‘failure’ to occur. This is when the muscle can no longer perform in this tense state and has to retire. When this happens, the body will generally align in a much more efficient way and the tension will be released.
Secondly, coming out of this slow movement training is the identification of ‘sticking points’ in the joints and their articulation. These sticking points are characterised by flat spots or sudden stops and starts as we perform a circular action. Once highlighted, this problem of sticking joints and flat spots in motion can be addressed as we begin the process of smoothing out the circles.
Smoothing out the circles requires a very deep level of attention. You must recognise the precise location of the sticking point in your movement. When you are sure of the position of the error you can begin to work to resolve it. To do this we aim to release at the start of the sticking point, using the breathing, and then work hard to maintain fine control of the soft movement as we pass through the problem area. Over a relatively short period of time, maybe a week or so, you can completely smooth out these sticking points. The result being that you are able to move without the power of your movement failing at these weaknesses.
Tai Chi is one of the best arts to mitigate tension, it is explicitly set up for this purpose. The myriad ways that Tai Chi is used will depend upon this ability to release tension and the more we are able to do this, the deeper and more complete our Tai Chi will become.