Relaxing the Muscles in T'ai Chi

The power of T'ai Chi comes from muscular relaxation and not intense muscular effort. Many T’ai Chi beginners try too hard to get it right too soon. When the body is properly aligned and relaxed, you can conjure up an amazing amount of power with seemingly little effort. This power comes from the body’s inner strength.

Following are two different ways you use your muscles:

  • Gripping: Muscle use often accompanied by clenched teeth, a clamped jaw, or clenched, white-knuckled fingers. Not to mention all the surrounding muscles that get tight even when they don’t need to. This builds tension and usually stops a conscious breath.

  • Contracting: Using a specific muscle for movement, without involving any muscles not required for the movement — including that nasty ol’ clenched jaw. This method usually allows relaxation and continuous full and deep breathing to accomplish the movement well.

Experiment for a moment to see what you do:

  1. Raise one arm up in front of you from your shoulder.

  2. Now tighten your shoulder muscle.

Is your fist clenched and your bicep bundled up? Hold on. You should tighten your shoulder, not the entire arm. Now, try again: Keep the shoulder tightened while you relax your bicep, forearm, and fingers. (Don’t forget to keep your jaw relaxed.) Feels different that way, doesn’t it? You’re probably still breathing, too.

Have you ever floated on your back in water? If you fight the water by flailing and splashing, you can’t begin to float. But if you relax and breathe, you can float effortlessly — even though you’re using some muscular contraction. To build a better mind-body foundation, all you need to do is float effortlessly, using only the muscles needed.

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