Why Relaxation is Not Easy

The problem posed in the title is a constant concern in all CMA (Chinese Martial Arts) training. Of course, one immediate answer recognizes that relaxation and exercise are just plain difficult to coordinate. This is especially true when you add thinking to the mix. But the true approach, like all martial training, is both more sophisticated and more foundational.

For an example of this dilemma, I’ve decided to focus on Tai Chi Chuan, where many people automatically assume relaxation. In fact, Tai Chi Chuan is pretty much the poster child for relaxation. Yet even this “most relaxed” of all martial styles can be surprisingly difficult to learn.

The first challenge arises from the need for fundamental changes in seemingly normal perception. Body alignment, holding stances, even turning from left to right: all become highly scrutinized. This always occurs when we attempt clear thinking regarding basic movements. It is so bad we begin to doubt our ability to walk across a room, much less practice fighting.

Relaxation in martial studiesIn Tai Chi, as in every traditional Chinese martial art worth its designation, those postures held with apparent ease are–in some ways–fakes, or icons surrounding the  work of finding real, deep relaxation and power. This is the step-wise method and the goals it pursues–relaxation and technique bumping against one another every inch of the trail. Progress here is fueled by a little hope and a lot of dedication.

If you tune a guitar too tightly it will shriek. If you tune it too loosely, the sound collapses. At first, “relaxation” should be in “quotes,” because the gradient of fades from tight to loose is still elusive. True,
most of us know all about the tension pole, but at first it is only faith that promises a little progress in the opposite direction. We must not surrender to one extreme or the other, but continually compare the gray shadings we create with our practice.

“Out of touch with his body” is becoming more and more a descriptive phrase of the average American. He floats. A balanced state–neither tense after being yelled at by his boss, nor relaxed after that two martini lunch–seems beyond possibility. In this condition a better description of relaxation for many people is ‘a state of near-collapse.’ Modern society is making even the discernment of these stages more and more mysterious and out of our hands. Nonetheless we teachers have to start the process of showing our students just what relaxation means in this context, and how it can be achieved.

One effective martial relaxation puts the student in a classic stance, which they must hold for several minutes, hunting for the relaxed state before their muscles Relaxation and core start quivering and give up. The battle here is leg fatigue (strength) vs.the correct placement of supporting bone structure (relaxation). This roundabout method demonstrates to the student that relaxation can equal strength through anatomical precision. This search for just the right position and its correlation to relaxed muscles is a skill in itself.

Probably the worst single factor robbing the student from grasping true relaxation originates with a common teaching tool: punctuation. Few teachers would call it by that name: they might speak of focus, or power, or energy. It all adds up to the same thing: a mentally focused visible discharge of martial strength and power.

Soft or hard, Wudang or Shaolin, all styles must have training like this at some point. For young martial artists, such a demonstration of force is foundational for further development. Focusing techniques plainly lets us feel our own power, and that is not a bad thing. The trouble lies in how seductive such stiff, disjointed movement can be. True, it feels good to produce a well-synchronized action combining proper stance, posture, power and speed. But such frozen postures can be painfully difficult to unlearn as the student reaches for higher levels.

In the early days of training, everyone feels a need to tense up, lock muscles and thrust a punch, accompanied by a loud SNAP, showing the perfect convergence of body and intent. This is just natural. But these manifestations of power become soRelaxation and form habitual that many students can hardly move martially without them. Like I said, in the early stages of training when the student is learning his or her power base, this hard-edged form of practice can be very useful. But, taken too far, it clearly contributes to the problems of relaxation in the higher martial branches.

If you have ever actually tried to learn from an instructional text, you will see numbers accompanying the step-by-step illustrations, and little arrows indicating paths to match the figure in the final photo. This phonetic method is fine for lower grades, teaching basic, but not crucial movement. Initially, it helps you ‘sound out’ the moves but, just as in reading, it ultimately impedes the flow of a sentence.

What is the best way to speed the student’s journey to the more relaxed state? One way to allay a student’s fear of doing a move wrong is to introduce a few variations. Encourage exploration by substituting these variations. Or every now and then, remove the punctuation and see if the student can progress smoothly through the form. Another method starts when they reach a random point in the form: have them close their eyes and visualize the next movement BEFORE doing it.

Finding the wayIn one sense, relaxation is just a way of organizing body and mind. The most common difficulty for students is that they can neither see nor feel the out-of-whack parts. The mirror helps, but but only to a point. The real skill here is an internal sweeping awareness.

Not only do these methods not violate good training, but they make the student “own” his movements. Martial ownership like this relaxes everybody.

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