A Fresh Look at the Value of Relaxation

Originally published in Tai Chi Magazine, 1994
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George Xu in the Chen style
“Heart Protecting Punch” posture
Drawing, © 1994 by Brad Niemeyer

How can a graceful, dance-like martial art with slow-motion kicks and strikes possibly be effective in a fight? Compared to the external martial arts with their forceful kicks and strikes, does tai chi seem impotent? What is the point of tai chi chuan?

Master George Xu, a Chen stylist and Lan Shou practitioner, says that practicing slow tai chi moves alone is not enough. He stresses the need to become totally relaxed so that natural reaction (reflex action) can do the work. If someone sticks you with a sharp needle, your reflexes draw your arm back very fast, faster than you can move by conscious intent. You never lose your reflexes. Even your 80-year-old grandfather’s reflexes pull away very fast. Muscle power declines with age, but reflex, natural reaction, never goes away. By developing relaxation, looseness, and sensitivity, you can take advantage of your reflex action. Even when you’re old, you can protect yourself.

Xu offers this analogy. “A stalking tiger moves slowly, lightly, focused, with intent (I). The tiger is doing tai chi when it stalks; its whole body is involved in the motion and it is totally focused on that action. The ability to move slowly and stay relaxed and focused allows the fastest motion. If the tiger isn’t concentrating and moves carelessly or quickly as it stalks, it may rustle the leaves and scare away the deer. However, it moves slowly only until it is time to leap or run to catch the deer. If the tiger doesn’t have quick reflexes to go with its slow “tai chi” stalking movements, it won’t catch anything. If the tiger only does slow movements, it gets no dinner.

“So it is with the tai chi player. If the tai chi player practices only slow moves, and doesn’t work on I, and doesn’t become relaxed, with the whole body involved in every motion, then there’s not really any tai chi happening. The point of the slow movements and the concentrated focus is to unleash the reflexes. A tiger with slow reflexes doesn’t eat. A tai chi player with slow reflexes gets hit.”

At Master’s Workshop I, a two-day seminar hosted by Kip Athan in Richland, Washington, Xu demonstrated one of the difficulties in learning to be relaxed. Holding his arms out in front at about waist height, Xu had a seminar participant lay his wrists on Xu’s arms. “Relax your arms. Let them relax so your muscles are totally relaxed. Don’t hold up your arms, let them relax onto my arms. Are your arm muscles all relaxed?”


Xu dropped his arms out from under the student’s, and the student’s arms hung in the air. “You’re not relaxed! Many students think they are relaxed — they think they are not holding tension in their muscles, but they haven’t achieved the looseness, the relaxation needed for good tai chi.”

Tai chi teaches the relaxation, flexibility and looseness you need to allow your muscles to work in harmony, to allow your whole body to work together, instead of fighting against tension you may not even be aware of in your muscles. Until you achieve that relaxation, your muscles must fight not only your opponent but also your other muscles. Recognize, however, that this relaxation does not mean limp. Relaxed means having no tension in muscles that are ready to work instantly. The muscles are filled with chi and so are not dangling there bored, but are poised and ready to move.

Natural reaction (reflex action), which comes from this relaxation, is what makes tai chi such an effective fighting system, even though it may not appear so. Imagine a cauldron of water. It could be extremely hot water. How can you tell? If you study an external, hard style kung fu, you slam your hand with great muscular force into the water. You find out the water is hot by burning your hand. Your opponent is like hot water, very dangerous to you. He could break your arm.

If you study a fast external style martial art, like Shaolin, you plunge your hand into the water very fast and pull it out very fast. You won’t get burned, but you won’t be able to tell if the water is hot. This kind of martial art will make you very fast, but you don’t feel the water. You’re pretty safe — you won’t burn your hand, but you won’t know if the water is hot. (By the way, you do understand why you want to determine if the water is hot, don’t you? Keep reading.)

Many tai chi players practice the slow moves but don’t develop the looseness, relaxation, and sensitivity, and will slowly and cautiously slide a hand into the water and then slowly and gracefully pull it out. Ouch! If the water’s hot, they get burned!

A good tai chi player, who has achieved the relaxation and looseness to let the body work together — who uses those quick reflexes — will slowly and cautiously slide a hand into the water and ZIP! pull it out by reflex, very fast. The good tai chi player moves very cautiously into the water, feels the heat, and pulls back by natural reaction. He feels the water is hot, but his fast reflex action, the fastest a human can move, saves his hand from burning.

When an enemy approaches, his fist is hot. The Chinese describe the fist like a metal hammer out of an oven. If someone pulls a metal hammer out of an oven and moves it toward you, you’ll react very fast, and pull away by natural reaction (reflex). Your opponent’s fist is like that hot metal hammer. You must be sensitive and quick to react.

How can you develop the relaxation, flexibility, and looseness that allow you to use natural reaction? Xu stresses the need to work on many different silk reeling exercises. Silk reeling power is lubrication, to make you smooth, to relax your muscles. If you issue power without being loose and relaxed, you can injure yourself. If you bring power from the dan tien out to your hand, but your shoulder muscles are not loose, the power will stop there, hitting those stiff muscles — you don’t hit your opponent, you hit yourself. Silk reeling makes everything loose.

Silk reeling exercises are a system of exercises, but the term silk reeling also serves as a description of a way to improve your tai chi. In other words, there is an entire set of exercises called silk reeling exercises, but you can also use the focus and techniques of silk reeling to improve your tai chi movements. The exercises are called silk reeling because you do them in the same fashion that silk is pulled off a coccoon. Coccoons are both fragile and sticky; if the silk is not pulled off smoothly, slowly, evenly, and continuously, the silk breaks. If you pull too slowly, the silk sticks and breaks. If you pull too fast, the silk snaps. If you’re not continuous and even, the silk breaks.

Practicing silk reeling teaches you to move slowly (but not too slowly), smoothly, evenly, and continuously. If you do not know any silk reeling exercises, pick a movement or set of movements from your tai chi form, perhaps “stroke peacock’s tail” or “press, withdraw, and push.“ Repeat the moves over and over and over, continuously, smoothly, evenly, and slowly; work on moving from the dan tien. Do these moves hundreds of times: Cheng Man-Ch’ing is said to have practiced each move in his form hundreds of times. Eventually, you want to have practiced silk reeling exercises involving every movement and posture in your tai chi form hundreds of times. By concentrating and doing silk reeling with these (and every) move in your form, you will find your tai chi becomes smooth, even, continuous, and directed from the dan tien.

Because there are so many different muscles and muscle groups, you need to practice many different silk reeling exercises. Think about two different animals: a baby ox has only one motion, it runs all the time. A baby tiger does everything: run, pounce, twist, roll, turn, spin, chase, leap; it practices every kind of exercise. Only one of them grows up to eat grass. The ox grows up, eats grass, and waits for the tiger to eat it. The tiger grows up and eats the ox. If you practice only one kind of exercise, you will not grow up to be a tiger.

Many people think silk reeling exercises only have application to the Chen style of tai chi. Not so at all. Silk reeling exercises teach you to move from the dan tien. By doing silk reeling, you will begin to better feel the movement of chi, which makes your tai chi better. Of course, it is the movement of chi that we all strive for — without chi, there’s no tai chi.

Until you can do the silk reeling exercises correctly, they’re boring. You must work through the boredom until your silk reeling is good. Get through the boring period. Do silk reeling. Be diligent. How many years did it take you to learn to use your fingers? You worked for years. So, too, you must work on silk reeling for years. Use your dan tien. Xu says he can do two or three hours of silk reeling exercises and still not feel finished, still not be satisfied, because he has not worked all of his muscles.

Silk reeling exercises also aid tremendously in developing your internal strength or energy, your chi. The chi cannot flow past tight muscles or locked joints, so you should do silk reeling to loosen the tight muscles. You must have strength and relaxation; the strength comes from the chi flowing through the relaxed muscles. Silk reeling leads to relaxed, flexible, and loose muscles, and thus to natural reaction, reflex action, that lets you respond as fast as you physically can. How can you develop more and faster strength than is possible through only muscular strength? Only through internal development: tai chi and silk reeling exercises. That looseness also frees you from chin na.

“The protection against chin na is to be flexible and loose.” says Xu. “Don’t be stiff. If someone grabs you and you loosely follow where he leads, then he can’t control you. An opponent may be able to break 10 boards, but he can’t break my arm. Because I’m loose and relaxed, when he chops my arm, I fold with the chop and come back with a hit. I don’t go against him. My opponent may chop hard, very hard, but I go with his force and return to hit. I don’t go against his power.“

To avoid being controlled by chin na, you must be relaxed, be able to change, to follow your opponent. Follow your opponent’s lead. Never use force against force. If he pulls you to the right, follow him to the right and attack on the left. Go with his force and beyond. Don’t try to hold off against his force, go with the force and return with a strike.

If you use chin na, don’t insist on completing your move. Change your method to match your opponent’s moves. When you grab him, use your whole body, not just your arm or shoulder. The scientific explanation is leverage — think of using a screwdriver in very hard wood. If you have a short screwdriver (if you try to do chin na using only your arm), you can’t get strength or control. If you use a long screwdriver (grab using the whole body) you will have greater power.

Still thinking about that hot water? Why do you want to know if the water is hot? As I said, your opponent is like that cauldron of water, you don’t know if he’s dangerous to you. You must be able to determine if the water is hot (the opponent is dangerous) without burning your hand (getting injured). The good tai chi player tests cautiously, but doesn’t remain in danger if the water is hot. Natural reaction allows a quick withdrawal, before getting burned.

Also, you want to determine the level of danger and deal with your opponent as he actually is, and not on the basis of your perceptions, expectations, and fears. If you’re concentrating, your I is focused, you’re not holding any expectations (is the water hot or not?), if you’re not afraid of getting burned, then you will be relaxed and allow your reflexes to respond, to pull you back from danger. Fear is the expectation of injury. Your I, your focus in the moment, will prevent you getting bound up by fear and expectation and keep your muscles relaxed for their quickest response.

So, it bears repeating (and repeating). You must learn to be relaxed, flexible, and loose. If you are relaxed, flexible, and loose, then you will respond by natural reaction (reflex action) instead of by conscious action. The tai chi player wants to develop and use this natural reaction. When you fight you want to be fast. To be fast, you must be relaxed. If you are relaxed, you will respond to threats with natural reaction, the fastest motion a human can make. The slow moves and concentrated focus (I) in tai chi training teach you to be relaxed. And that’s the point of tai chi.

Wait, you say. Is that all? Surely, that’s not the only point of tai chi. No, you’re right. Relaxation is very important. However, equally important are: connection (all the muscles working together, the whole body becoming one unit); spiral power (not just back and forth motion, but the force and torque of spiral power); and understanding and using complementary forces (the six dimensions: up and down, back and forth, right and left). These other points are equally important, and equally hard to master. But this was an article about relaxation and concentration.