Qigong and Tai Chi Technique: Really Relaxing for Real

One of the things - maybe the thing - that separates Qigong, Tai Chi, and the other internal martial arts from other forms of exercise is the way you do it. Qigong and Tai Chi are supposed to be done in a complete state of mental and physical relaxation.

If you've played Tai Chi or practised Qigong for any length of time at all, you know that this is actually a big challenge. Too often, we want to hit our workout like a hammer to let out all the tension we've allowed to build up since the last one. We groan and strain and clench and grasp, all the while waiting for our bodies to relax. An hour of practicing in tension passes (all while we tell ourselves we're plenty relaxed, thank you very much!). Maybe more goes by if we've been training for a while and we're nice and strong. At last we're too tired to strain and clench and grasp any more, and finally, we relax.

We can do better.

In this post I want to talk about a couple of concrete standards by which you can measure your own relaxation, and how I personally came to work with them to improve my Tai Chi and Qigong.

The standards come from Cheng Man-ch'ing's T'ai-Chi, a wonderful book with good practical advice for the practitioner. I pricked up my attention when I read this advice on how to tell if you're relaxed:

I would say a good start is made on relaxation when the student is able to go through a round [form / set] without letting outside influences into his mind. 

Okay, fair enough! And wow! Anyone who has done Tai Chi long enough for it to go into muscle memory knows how easy it is to allow your mind to drift to anything and everything except what you are doing. There are times when I swear my mind saves the most bizarre and ridiculous things especially for my practice time. (It does, and if you're doing Tai Chi effectively, yours probably will too at some point, and there are reasons for this, but that's a post for another time.) The more I thought about this definition, however, the more brilliant I realized it was: if a focused mind is relaxed, then a wandering mind is a cause of tension. 

While anyone familiar with meditation will tell you that focus and relaxation go hand in hand, I guess I've always thought that these two things needed to be balanced, rather than thinking of them as the same thing. As a creative person (I'm a fiction writer as well as a Tai Chi player), I find a certain enjoyment in allowing my mind to drift, but this is a totally different feeling than the hectic ricochet that the mind usually gets up to if you let it do what it wants. 

When I first started to really (for real) work with the concept of focus, I told myself that the workout was a time when I didn't have to think about anything else. It is actually a treat to let everything else go. This worked wonders, but it didn't quite get me where I wanted to go, especially considering the rest of Cheng Man-ch'ing's passage on relaxation: 

But this [not letting outside influences into the mind while performing a set] is only the first step. The next step is to do the exercises in such a manner that you are nearly exhausted at the conclusion. When your shoulders feel heavy you will know you are approaching real relaxation. This is a result of "swimming in air."

Okay so. We know that none of this exhaustion effect is going to be achieved by tension, right? Tai Chi is NOT isometric, neither is Qigong. You're supposed to be harmonizing with universal life energy here, not fighting yourself. So how do you get to this feeling?

The answer is to go into your workout already relaxed. No, put down that beer. What I'm talking about is getting in touch with the part of yourself that is already soft, always calm. Even if that part is only a tiny sub-molecular dot, you can access it.

(There are all kinds of Tai Chi manuals and advice about sinking the chi into the lower dantian and directing the breath. If you try to do any of that stuff too soon, you will get into falsely manipulating what should be a natural process. The best thing you can do is to get in touch with your inner cool and stay in touch with it as you move.)

Here's a simple exercise for contacting your inner cool. You can do this whether or not you are planning to perform Tai Chi or Qigong afterward. It's very beneficial to get in touch with your inner cool and operate from there. You'll have a much better time of things, and so will everyone around you!

Direct your mind deep within your core, seeking an area of calm. If you wish (recommended for Qigong and Tai Chi practitioners), focus awareness on the lower dantian, three finger widths below the navel and two finger widths inside the body. Take a deep breath. As you let it go, see, feel and imagine yourself dropping into that inner space. Ask yourself, "How am I doing?" You may find a word, feeling, or image comes up. Take note of it and continue.

Take a second breath. As you let it go, see, feel and imagine dropping down another layer, deeper into that inner spaciousness. Ask again, "How am I doing?" You may find a word, feeling, or image comes up. Take note of it and continue.

Take a third breath. As you let it go, see, feel and imagine dropping down a third layer, still deeper into the calm centre within. Ask, "How am I doing?" and take note of the word, feeling, or image that might come up.

Don't expect that the words, feelings, or images will all be positive. As you drop down you are dropping through the crusty layers of tension that under normal circumstances make it difficult for you to feel relaxed and calm. It is typical for the first word or two to be kind of negative or unpleasant, with only the third word becoming positive. Just accept whatever imagery, feelings, or concepts come through. This is information about yourself and your current state of being. The only guarantee you have is that it will change, so if you don't like it, just know that it will be different next time.

I've found that taking the time to "drop in" before working out sets me up to bring my best, most relaxed self into my Qigong or Tai Chi practice. The first time I did this, I had an incredible sitting meditation session afterward that confirmed for me how much more profound my practice was. I took that practice session very slowly, only working on a few movements of Ba Duan Jin in order to keep the sense of calm, and yet, I felt happily wiped out at the end. My students have reported that a round of Qigong and a Tai Chi set, which under normal circumstances could be considered a good warmup, are utterly exhausting when approached from this sense of relaxation. Chi spreads much more readily throughout the body as you work if you begin by getting in touch with your centre in this way.

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