So … Tai Chi helps us to relax

Thoughts from Julie Lucas

There are many reasons for joining a Tai chi class as a ‘beginner’, but the following are the main ones:

  • learning a martial art
  • learning a relaxing exercise to feel less stressed
  • learning a gentle exercise for fitness

However, it is mainly promoted for, and many of us were introduced to a Tai Chi class because of, the combination of an inner need to resolve stress and a general idea ‘from out there’ that the act of performing those graceful Tai Chi movements was somehow going to create a peaceful inner sense of our being.

We watch a Tai Chi master practising a routine, and feel transformed by the ease at which the ‘forms’ flow from the performer creating them, and we, the watchers, feel relaxed. Yet this is true whether the master’s intention is any of the reasons listed above. The concept ‘relax’ is central to all Tai Chi and therefore essential to master in terms of Tai Chi practice. But this concept is not necessarily as it is often practised.

The belief promoted for example that: Tai chi helps us to relax…. is paradoxically, both a truth and deception, and which deserves to be explored thoughtfully.

What is ‘to relax’? A dictionary definition is:

  1. becoming calm, muscles lose their tension
  2. you hold something less tightly
  3. make something less strict or controlled

Similar words: unwind, rest, loosen up.

From Collins Australian Dictionary

The Deception

If you started out by expecting a magical relaxation response or stress release from doing Tai Chi but unknown to yourself (but about to rudely discover it in a Tai chi class) you had no balance, were uncoordinated and generally unskilled in a physical bodily sense, then learning Tai Chi may have been anything but relaxing. In fact the mental frustration and feelings of inadequacy may contribute to greater stress, resolved only by discontinuing the class!

So Tai Chi is not necessarily relaxing it just looks that way. The master makes it look that way as the movements have become familiar through consistent mindful practice. First there is familiarity with the forms; then awareness of the body’s involvement in that process; and then the connection between tension and relaxation can be realised. The feedback loop between body and mind is only fully possible after the forms are familiar and this requires them to be practised over and over, not just to develop conscious-mental understanding but also for the nervous system to make the physical connections between the body and mind (kinaesthetic sense).

So… relaxation does not (cannot) happen overnight.

The Truth

So how does Tai Chi practice help us to relax? By practising mindfully.

By keeping focussed on the activity of the body and shutting out other mental chatter, as we practise the forms, we learn to become sensitive to imperfections in our movements. Soon there is also the realisation that this sensitivity extends beyond the physical experience of tension and imbalance in our forms but includes mental and emotional ones too. They have a very definite effect on the quality of the control over our movements.

It is the mind’s control switch which determines the state of relaxation being experienced, and most beginners’ forms are characteristically too hard: tension is switched on. To relax is synonymous with being able to control tension.

With practice comes familiarity, mindfulness and sensitivity and the control switch becomes a finely graduated control dial representing a scale of tension- relaxation. We learn to be sensitive to the amount of tension relative to relaxation that is needed to feel balanced in any movement.

Most of us tend towards tension, having overly-energised movements hence the continual reminder to relax them. But there is a need to monitor that they are not under-energised (too relaxed/floaty) too. This applies in the general sense of our overall state, or specifically to individual movements. In effect our movements through the Tai Chi forms become a barometer for our state of equilibrium, to be monitored and regulated by a present-state awareness of the mind.

It is the balance between the two - tension and relaxation- monitored and directed consciously that gives Tai Chi its characteristic relaxed appearance, and this requires persistent practice to be achieved. It is the state of relaxed alertness (readiness) that is being aimed for.

Our dictionary definitions and the general working definition especially as seen in the ‘similar words’, list, can be misleading.

In the Tai chi sense, to be relaxed is not an absolute at all (unless asleep, unconscious or dead): it is only a relative state which requires just the right balance of energy / chi, for the situation at hand. Any more and the mind’s "tension-relaxation control dial" has turned up tension, producing too much energy (stiffness, hardness, excess strength) and any less, then it has turned up relaxation, producing too little energy (limpness, softness, weakness) both of which are unsuited for Tai Chi purposes.

So to get more from your Tai Chi practice let the state of being relaxed develop naturally with your Tai Chi proficiency: Tai Chi is to practice with mindfulness not mindlessness.


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