Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Relax, Damnit! --- Part 2

I’m standing with my feet a comfortable distance apart, my arms at my sides. I start at the top of my head to relax my whole body. My head becomes lightened, as if suspended from a thread. I empty my mind oof all thoughts. I rest my tongue gently against the roof of my mouth. I loosen up the muscles of my neck and drop my shoulders, allowing my arms to bend very slightly so my elbows move away from my body. My palms turn inward, wrist and fingers in a gentle curve. My spine is straight but as I breath deeply and slowly I feel my back muscles relax and my energy seems to sink. I bend my knees a little to take the tension out of my legs. All of my energy seems centered just below my navel: I have sunk my Chi to the Dantian! My feet, instead of feeling all the weight of my body have rooted themselves several inches below the floor! I have completed the first movement of Tai Chi Chuan: Preparation.

But am I relaxed? What does it really mean to relax in terms of Tai Chi practice? Why is that first movement, so important?

The English translation of Fu Zhongwen’s book, Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan (essential reading) is by Louis Swaim. In his introduction he talks about translation issues and points out that the terms, song and fang song are usually translated as “relaxed” and “relax.”  He says:

Etymologically the term song is based on a character for “long hair that hangs down”--- that is, hair that is loosened and expanded, not “drawn up.” Therefore, “loosened” and “loosen” are more accurate renderings for song and fang song.

Fu Zhongwen, in speaking of the Preparatory Posture, says the “…spirit of vitality (jingshen) should be naturally elevated. The mind should be calm, without a trace of distracting thoughts.” And therein lies another important element of relaxation: emptying the mind. Thinking causes stress and stress increases tension in the muscles. Therefore, it makes sense to empty the mind of daily problems.

Yang Chenfu beginning posture
Standing correctly relaxed at the beginning (or, some say, before the beginning) puts one in the proper state of mind and of body for continuing to be loose during movement: moving, as they say, like a string of pearls. The story goes that Sun Lu Tang went to study the martial art of Xing Yi Quan with the master, Li Kui Yuan. Li taught him only the Standing Posture which he practiced for a whole year. One day as Sun was in the Standing Posture, Li approached him from behind and struck him on his back. Sun was unmoved by the blow and so was allowed to advance in his studies. Sun Lu Tang (originator of Sun Style Taijiquan) wrote about Wu Ji:

Wu Ji is the natural state occurring before one begins to practice martial arts. The mind is without thought; the intent is without motion; the eyes are without focus; the hands and feet are still; the body makes no movement; yin and yang are not yet divided; the clear and the turbid have not yet separated; the qi is united and undifferentiated.

And one cannot discount the importance of placing the tongue against the roof of the mouth. This has a number of benefits. For one, a stressed person tends to grit  or grind their teeth. The muscles of the jaws, when tensed in that way can transfer the tension to your whole body and even cause headaches. In addition, when the tongue touches the roof of the mouth it somewhat blocks one from breathing through the mouth and drying it out. In fact, some saliva may be generated in this way which is beneficial to other body functions. In Qigong theory there are two different energy paths which are connected by this placement of the tongue against the roof of the mouth--- but now we’re getting more complicated than I had intended in this simple discussion of relaxing!

One of the Tai Chi Classics, the Tai Chi Chuan Treatise attributed to Wang Chung Yueh in the Ming Dynasty (translated by Master T. T. Liang) says:

T’ai Chi (The Supreme Ultimate) springs from Wu Chi (The Limitless). It is the source of motion and tranquility and the mother of Yin and Yang. In motion they separate, in tranquility they fuse into one.

From this we can understand that relaxing is the path to correct movement of Qi throughout the body and hence essential to the practice of Tai Chi Chuan (The Supreme Ultimate Fist). So relax, Damnit!

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