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Every student faces one obstacle that dwarves every other: muscular tension in the body. The arms and shoulders are usually the most tense.
No matter how many times you are asked to relax, the tendency to be tense remains.
Your body must be neither tense nor flaccid; you must find that point where the absolute minimum of muscular effort is sustained at all times.
The primary cause of unnecessary tension is habit. You have spent a lifetime overexerting and now it feels perfectly natural and normal.
The arms of a
true taijiquan master are like iron bars wrapped in cotton.
They are extremely flexible yet internally strong and heavy.
When grasping an opponents hand as in pushing hands practice,
the taijiquan masters hands are very light but the opponent cannot get away from him.
He can release intrinsic energy from his spine like a bullet from the muzzle of a gun.
His strike is lightning swift and clear-cut like the breaking of a stick,
without the slightest exertion of muscular force.
(T T Liang)
Being relaxed yet strong (without trying) seems counter-intuitive; it simply does not make sense to you. It goes against everything you think concerning strength.
This psychological habit is what causes the physical problem to occur. All change must begin in the mind - that is why Tao/Zen reading is absolutely vital.
Your body alignment is important in taijiquan; it supports neigong by using physics to your advantage.
By positioning your body in a favourable way - relative to an opponent - you have access to more strength.
Listening, stickiness, 4 ounces of pressure, 5 bows, yielding and softness - all serve to teach you how to have power without recourse to brute force.
Every taijiquan drill is an exercise in practicing these qualities, but the exercise is wasted every time you resort to aggression and tension.
Strong is wrong
If you feel strong and powerful in your movement, you are not using neigong. Whenever you find yourself thinking: "I hardly did anything" - you are learning.
Silk is an unusual fabric. Traditionally it was worn by samurai and European knights beneath their armour because projectiles could not easily penetrate the fabric.
The material is exceptionally strong and flexible; it is innately soft, resilient and supple. Yet delicate.
In silk arms, the fist moves
very fast, covering both sides of the opponents body from top to bottom,
fluidly changing from straight hits, to sideways cuts to hooks, like the tip
of a piece of silk blown in a high wind.
As this occurs, the arms and elbows appear to be boneless as they seamlessly bend and fold like undulating cloth.
When harvested, silk must be drawn from the cocoon very carefully. A minute degree of tension must be established and maintained; with no abrupt movements or lags.
Any variation in tension and the thread will sag or break.
Silk arms is more of a concept than a drill. Your arms must be like silk ribbons - connected, flowing, loose, adaptable - with no extraneous tension whatsoever.
They must be free to move without the slightest impediment. Any stiffness in the joints or muscles will break the flow.
Where does the strength come from? Qigong, neigong, form, connection, alignment and gravity.
Until you believe in the neigong and have faith that it exists within your every movement, you remain tense.
You imbue your form and applications with muscle tension in the hope of possessing a strength that is already present.
The irony is that you cannot use your whole-body strength until you stop exerting externally.
Do not try
External effort is about trying, about doing - whereas the internal is about allowing.
If you have trained neigong for months and practiced qigong regularly, your limbs are already strong; so doing is not required.
Many taijiquan instructors have an external martial arts background. This is valuable experience but also an impediment.
Taijiquan approaches combat in a very different way to the hard-style arts. If you apply external methodologies and tactics to taijiquan, it simply will not work in self defence.
At best, you'll have an external parody of taijiquan. At worst, you'll simply be defeated.
Training internal and external martial arts at the same time is not so good - the approaches contradict one another. The external art will impede your taijiquan progress.
You cannot train external and internal arts simultaneously and hope for the internal to work. Under pressure the external would come out, not the internal.
They develop training methods like silk arms where they can twist and bend their joints like a piece of silk, making their movements highly fast, reactive, unpredictable and mobile, which makes it hard to grab or lock their joints.
Taijiquan is concerned with whole-body movement, with the emphasis upon the movement itself; the how rather than the result.
Physical movement is largely concealed within the body, and only a small fraction is visible during the application. External arts are strength-based and focus on speed and aggression.
The limbs move independently of the rest of the body, with a more superficial connection throughout the frame. Strength is used against strength.
An internal form is different to an external one. The emphasis is upon how you perform the movements: which combination of body skills powered your frame.
Neigong cannot be incorporated fully into an external art because neigong requires the body to let-go and release stored tension.
Muscular usage must be imperceptible; at no time should you exceed 4 ounces of pressure.
Taijiquan limbs are like boneless tentacles; heavy, loose, fluid yet connected. No sense of strength should be felt by the student. If you feel strong, then you're external and tense.
You should feel to be weak and yielding - which takes a leap of faith in the practitioner. Only by letting-go can jing be released. How can it come out when you hold it in?
The true sign of skill in taijiquan is your ability to remain absolutely soft and gentle throughout your practice. You will find that grace and fluidity emerge and you will be hard to manipulate.
Your movements will become smooth and flowing, and you can spontaneously adapt to the changing nature of the moment. Strength will be present in your every movement, yet you will be unaware of it.
If you let go of your
muscular strength your body will start relaxing.
More skilled students learn to feel only the movement, and not their own body. This is called 'sung'. Until you stop being tense, this kind of skill is not possible.
Every time you move, relax. Then relax again. Repeatedly remind yourself to let-go.
18 April 1995
Last updated 29 September 2019