Song or relaxation in T’ai Chi Ch’uan has become my most favorite subject on this blog. Before I started writing about the art of T’ai Chi, I had no idea that there was so much to say and that it was possible to explore it in so many different ways. But of course, the most simple things are often the hardest to explain.
If you are not acquainted with the terms or words in this post and want to understand it more fully, it’s probably better to first read more about how I define song, or relaxation in Tai Chi, and also about peng. Or maybe this post will give you a better understanding about these concepts than any other text I’ve written before? Anyway, to understand certain things, it’s sometimes better to read much about them. Now, let’s get started:
Can you be too limp, like a noodle soup? Or is al dente to be preferred?
Many people, including a large amount of Tai Chi practitioners, have the idea that Tai Chi can be too relaxed, too soft, which means that a certain amount of “al dente” is needed. They believe that their structure would collapse if they didn’t offer a certain amount of strength or resistance. Sometimes when they see form performances, they laugh. Some people laugh at Tai Chi practitioners, teachers and even masters with a good reputation because they believe what they see is collapsed or don’t have a certain clear structure or the angles that they believe is necessary for Tai Chi. Sometimes they are correct, but sometimes the visual appearance of a certain performance can deceive.
So how to be al dente, or how do you achieve something that make your structure to not collapse? In my own humble opinion, in Tai Chi, it’s extremely important that you must know to completely relax. Your mind and body should be completely empty. What does this mean? To be completely relaxed, what does it mean? To collapse down to the floor? Of course not. To understand how deep you can relax without falling down, I suggest you should spend some good amount of practice the basic tai chi standing meditation in the wuji posture, or the wujishi. My first teacher who didn’t care very much about names or the origin of things called it “standing Zen meditation”. I like this name, there is something nice about it. But it is not a Buddhist exercise, it’s a Tai Chi exercise. Some teachers regard it very high. Sun Lutang for instance suggested that you should always stand in this posture for approximately 20 minutes before practicing the tai chi form.
Standing in the Wuji shi is a good way to start
Then how do you do it. Just stand straight up, the feet a little bit apart. Men should stand shoulder width apart or if you are a women you can also stand with the feet apart according to you hip width if you prefer so. Tuck in the hips a little. You can close your eyes if you wish. Relax. Now, examine your whole body, examine every little inch, from the top of your head down to your toes and then up again. Go slowly, inch by inch, feel your body through your attention and look for tensions. Drop and relax every part of the body that have tension. You will find tensions that you were not aware of that they existed, be sure of that. Relax all of the body deeply. Relax your wight straight down. You will need several session for a long period of time before understanding what deep relaxation really is. You see, relaxation is not something anyone can do. It’s a skill that needs to be practiced and developed. You don’t need to stand in wuji every single day and you den’t need 20 minutes every time. But if you do it a few times a week, you will be able to relax more and better. As you learn to really relax your body, will come to understand that your body can hold up itself. You don’t need to force it and you don’t need to do anything by yourself to keep up the body. The body will take care of it by itself if you let it. If you are able to relax really deep, you will feel longer, your spine will stretch, your neck will feel taller and the head will suspend itself as it was suspended by a string above. And you won’t need to keep the tip of the tongue to the roof inside of the mouth. The tongue will automatically spread like a fan and put itself up to the roof of the mouth. All of this is your body’s own natural movements, how the muscles and your nervous system, will cooperate with the gravity.
Now you are starting to understand what your own body wants, how your body work when you let it take care of itself. The body wants to raise, it strives to take place like it wanted to become bigger. If you want to, you can call this natural reaction for “peng energy”. It is a kind of passive peng. Real peng energy, as in pengjin, the skill of peng, that you use is a more active form of the same thing. But you use it when you move and practice it with a partner as against a resisting opponent when you play tuishou or train on your applications.
To understand this energy or quality that can hold up your structure by itself you need to first have developed the skill to relax very deep. It needs to have become a developed skill, a skill that is better than how the average person can relax. And before you can be able to use it, you need to have practiced it against your partners so you can still keep quite a deep relaxed body state against someone who tries to push and feral you around and resists your movements with strength.
It’s not a very easy task to achieve. Just try to hit a punching or kicking bag as hard as you can, but at the same time try to relax completely. You will need a teacher or a partner to understand and check when and how you tense up. The whole idea with relaxing and letting the body take over the “keeping up the structure part” by itself is a little bit like Stanislavsky’s contradicting exercise as he told his students to stand in a corner and for 30 seconds and try to not think about a penguin. Not easy to do, because if you don’t forget the premise of exercise, you will obviously keep on thinking about a darn penguin. The thing is that relaxing to the extent that you let the body by itself take over demands a bit of faith. You won’t understand what is happening or why before you have tested it. You won’t be able to use it before you feel comfortable with keeping your body in a very relaxed state whatever happens. If someone throws a fist at you, your first natural reaction will be to tense, to defend yourself, and not to relax and trust your body to do what is right.
The amount of al dente that is necessary for tai chi, to keep up your structure and not collapse against an opponent is a minimum. But it’s also something that the body will take care of by itself if you let it. If you try to have a certain resistance or keep a certain tension before developing relaxation into a skill, your al dente will be too hard, too stiff. You will never understand real “song” or relaxation and your will never understand real “peng energy”. Relaxation comes first, second and always. It’s a skill that you need time to develop and time to learn how to keep always. First then you will be able to really use it.