On Relaxation – June 2019
By Margaret Olmsted
“I have been practicing Tai-Chi Chuan for over fifty years. Only recently have I started to fully understand the word ‘relax’. I remember my Tai-Chi Chuan teacher Yang Cheng-Fu who did not like to talk much. He used to sit all day without saying a word if no one asked him questions. However, in our T’ai-chi class he would tell us to ‘relax’ repeatedly. Sometimes it seemed like he would say the word hundreds of times during the practice so that the word could fill up my ears. Strangely enough he also said that if he did not tell me of this word that I would not be able to learn T’ai-chi in three life-times (meaning never). I doubted his words then. Now that I think back, I truly believe that if he did not keep reminding me of the word ‘relax’, I doubt if I could have learned T’ai-chi Chuan in six life-times.
What is the meaning of ‘relax’ in T’ai-chi? Here is an example to help you understand the word. When we go visit a Buddhist temple we usually see a statue of Me-Lo Buddha. The one who has a big rounded stomach with a big smile on his face. He carries a large bag on his shoulder. On top of this statue we see a motto: ‘Sit with a bag. Walk with a bag. It would be such a relief to drop the bag.’ What does all this mean? To me, a person himself or herself is a bag. Everything he or she owns is baggage, including one’s children, family, position and wealth. It is difficult to drop any of one’s baggage, especially the ‘self’ bag.
T’ai-chi Chuan is difficult to learn. To relax in practicing T’ai-chi Chuan is the most difficult phase to go through. To relax a person’s mind is the most significant obstacle to overcome in practicing T’ai-Chi. It takes a great effort to train and exercise one’s mind to relax.”
This quote from Professor Cheng says it all. A key principle to embodying tai chi is relaxation. It seems easy, but there are layers and layers of relaxation one has to go through. Physically we have to relax our muscles. When I was first learning tai chi, I could not imagine that I could relax the muscles in the leg I was standing on. I thought I needed all my strength. There was no line between standing and collapsing. If I wanted to relax, I lay on the couch, or got a massage, or, in those days, smoked a little marijuana. But, like Yang Cheng-Fu, my teacher Patrick Watson reminded us again and again to relax. It was only through doing tai chi over many years that I learned to be able to relax the leg I was standing on.
In his book, The 13 Treatises, Professor Cheng describes how the body relaxes in stages. First we relax the hands and arms and shoulders, then down through the hips legs to the feet, and finally up the spine. This happens over time and with continued practice and dedication. But as we do rounds, hold positions, and focus in the dantian, we can practicing letting go of tension in this order. My experience as both student and teacher is that when I am guided (or guiding) through a progressive relaxation, the relaxation goes deeper. Then, when my muscles are more fully relaxed, the qi can flow and my body feels lighter and the joints feel more open. Adding the image of the 1000 pound weight helps to relax and open the spine and give a sense of quiet rootedness and connection to the earth.
The lightness that comes with loose, relaxed joints and muscles is a real gift of tai chi. When our bodies are relaxed, they are less prone to injury and heal faster. According to the Mayo Clinic, the health benefits of relaxation include:
- Slowing heart rate
- Lowering blood pressure
- Slowing breathing rate
- Improving digestion
- Maintaining normal blood sugar levels
- Reducing activity of stress hormones
- Increasing blood flow to major muscles
- Reducing muscle tension and chronic pain
- Improving sleep quality
- Lowering fatigue
- Improving concentration and mood
- Reducing anger and frustration
- Boosting confidence to handle problems
The last three items are very interesting. The internal focus in the dantian and the letting go of tensions focuses the mind. We have to focus the mind to relax and this relaxation helps us focus. And being more relaxed in our bodies and minds leads to better health and a more relaxed attitude and helps us let go of what Professor Cheng calls the “self” bag.
In qigong we often tell students to “remain in a pleasant mood.” What a simple thing to say and yet how challenging it can be to relax and just “be.” Sometimes being alone with myself is difficult. At first I can’t quiet my mind and I may not want to think about the thoughts that are arising. I get bored or restless. Some of this restlessness is the qi increasing. By slowing down my breathing and focusing more deeply I can experience a letting go on all levels and just “be.”
On the other hand, this attitude of just “being” can be much easier when we are alone and no one is entering our space. Often when we are engaged with another person, many feelings can arise. We may not like their being in our space, or we may feel competition or anxiety or have mixed feelings. The art of push hands is in staying relaxed and open no matter what happens and whom we are with. Easier said than done. But both push hands and life are much more enjoyable when we are relaxed and open, grounded and alert. So the real gift of tai chi is in learning to be a fully relaxed, present human being, with baggage, but able to carry it with a big smile on our face, until we are finally able to put it down.