When teaching tai chi, we have a big emphasis on relaxation. Don’t be tense, relax the shoulders, sink the elbows, relax, relax, relax. This is necessary as so many of us are holding tension in our muscles and fascia, have life stresses that worry us, are dealing with past or present trauma, or any number of other factors that create contraction and holding in the body.
But many of us are also very sedentary. We spend a lot of time in front of computers, sitting at a desk, sitting at the sewing machine, sitting in cars. Standing is much better, but even then we can spend a lot of time in a forward slouch of the upper body. Think of your posture when chopping your vegies, ironing, cleaning, doing the dishes. These postures cause lengthening and weakening of the muscles of the upper back, and shortening of the muscles of the chest. This creates a rounded upper back posture which has many flow-on effects like a poking chin, shoulders that sit forward and a constricted chest.
All of this leads to chronic tension and fatigue. Muscles that are fighting to keep you upright each day get exhausted very quickly. Now relate that to what we do in tai chi class. Are your movements relaxed or are they collapsed because your muscles are too tired to work efficiently? Consider the movement holding the ball. Where is your elbow in relation to the top hand? It should be slightly lower than the palm, with the arms rounded and space between the upper arms and the ribs. I’m seeing a lot of saggy elbows where the arms are almost resting on the ribs. In this position the muscles are not able to generate any strength because the angle at the shoulder joints is not conducive to effective muscle function.
Our bodies should be in a position of biomechanical efficiency where we can move smoothly and generate force if we wish. I often think of what I was taught when learning to drive: Always stay in a gear from which you can accelerate. Saggy elbows is like driving in 6th gear up a steep hill. You can’t generate speed or torque no matter how hard you try. It also means having strength in reserve; strength on the inside, but softness on the outside. Strength in reserve for tai chi, strength in reserve for everyday life.
Let’s look at a few postures:
Wuji: Before any form we stand with feet together or a little apart, arms by the sides, posture upright with eyes gazing forwards. We attempt to clear the mind, relax and be ready for the movements to come. When we relax in this posture, we don’t want to relax too much or we will crumple. The postural muscles are working to keep us upright, but we can relax all other muscles. You might need to consciously and gently draw the shoulders back a little so that the palms rest mid-thigh and facing inwards, rather than to the front of the thigh and facing backwards. We want to be relaxed, but might need a little extra activation in the muscles between the shoulder blades so that we can stand with good posture. We might also need to draw the chin back ever so slightly to lengthen the back of the neck and reduce the forward chin poke. This is relaxed, but not collapsed. There is activation and relaxation in the appropriate muscles.
Standing post (stand like a tree): We often stand in horse riding stance, with arms circled
forward (as if hugging a tree) to do breathing meditation. There can be differences in intent here – sometimes we stand and focus on relaxing and other times we stand and focus on being strong (standing in péng). Your elbows may be slightly more dropped if relaxation is the focus and may be slightly more raised, although still below the shoulders, if standing in péng.
You might think that all of the activity is going on in front of the torso here, but that’s not the case. To hold that circular frame, we need muscular activity the whole way around the body. In order to maintain the position for any length of time, the active muscles need a stable base. By that I mean that the deltoids and pectorals are the dominant muscles holding the arms in position, but if they were not balanced by the action of muscles at the back of the shoulder and between the shoulder blades, then we’d be very shortened across the chest, rounded across the upper back and would possibly notice constricted breathing. Pop your arms in position now and have a play with the position of your shoulder blades. If we stand tall and draw the shoulder blades gently back, then we are engaging the rhomboids and trapezius to work synergistically to neutralise the forward pull of the chest and front of the shoulder muscles. This gives us a strong, but relaxed frame.
Adding in some tai chi theory, the outer margins of the body - the outer arms and legs, and the back - are yang and strong. The inner parts of the body - inner arms, inner legs, belly - are yin and soft. When meditating in standing post, we sink our chi, we send down our energy, our roots, from the balls of the feet so that we are grounded, strong and stable. We can also focus on the Băihuì acupoint at the crown of the head and lift it up to the heavens, the universe. We do this by drawing back the chin slightly to lengthen and align the back of the neck. Allow the crown to lift, don’t force it. In this position we are connected to and balanced between the universe and the earth. When standing in péng, if someone were to come and push against us, we are not going anywhere. We can absorb that force and send it to ground because we are stable, grounded and strong, but also relaxed.
Ward off - péng: In the grasp the bird’s tail sequence of movements, ward off is the first. It’s a solid block, a ‘back off mate’ kind of move, fully yang. Now imagine doing that with a droopy elbow. I feel weak just thinking about it! We have a circular arm neutralising and redirecting a strong force, so we want the strength of our skeleton to help out rather than muscling our way through. Lifting the elbow brings the humerus, the bone in the upper arm into play so the force can be received through the bony frame to the body and down to the ground, rather than trying to push using the the triceps. We want our bony frame in the most biomechanically advantageous position from which to exert strength. Very strong people might not identify so easily with this concept because ‘muscling through’ is easy. It’s when you have small, thin deltoids and poor excuses for triceps that your positioning becomes all the more important. Get your frame in the right position then relax and let the chi flow. I’m not suggesting we should be exerting great strength while we move through our form. Our strength is on the inside, but we could show it on the outside if we wanted.
Tai chi salute: Another posture where I don’t like to see saggy elbows is in our tai chi salute. We are not just raising our hand and fist. We have a strong, circular frame with elbows up (but below the shoulders) and activity between the shoulder blades to ensure a solid base for the action of the shoulder muscles. Be upright with good posture and acknowledge your instructor and the art of tai chi with a strong but relaxed salute. This sets up a very good start to your practise.
In the above examples I’ve only talked about the upper body frame, but of course there’s the lower body frame as well. Relax, don’t collapse, is particularly important for moves where we shift the weight to the back leg. We then have most of our weight on a bent back leg while redirecting an attacking force, for example, roll back, or lǚ.
The roll back, or pull back, is the second move in the grasp the bird’s tail sequence and flows on from ward off. From bow stance we shift weight back and turn the kua, or pelvis, so we can follow the arms with the eyes. Where is the back knee pointing? If it’s pointing forwards so that the thighs are fairly close together, then it will only take a little nudge to have you sprawled on the ground.
Having the knee forwards puts the hip and knee joints in vulnerable positions and creates strain. But if the knee is open and aligned over the toes, then the hip external rotators and abductors are engaged and both joints are in positions of strength not weakness. Again, this is getting the bony framework in an effective position so that the muscles work efficiently and we are able to relax and flow. With the foot turned out, knee pointing out and hip rotated outwards, the supporting leg is much stronger and able to coil up that energy and use it to shift the body to press forwards.
Now think about how having the knees and hips in positions of strength can impact our every day life. Two words: falls prevention. If we can use our tai chi form to train and strengthen our hip stabilisers, then this strength translates into being more able to maintain balance as we go about our daily activities. Improved balance and reduced fear of falls are two of the most studied benefits of tai chi. If we can use our tai chi to train and strengthen our shoulder girdle, then this translates to being able to pick up our grandchildren a little more easily, or lift the box of vegies, or sit at the computer for a little longer without getting sore. We really can get stronger through our gentle tai chi.
Our bodies and brains are able to relax into our movements when we feel supported and secure. Supported by our skeleton, supported by the appropriate muscles working efficiently, and supported by good technique. Translating these movement patterns into our everyday lives allows us to move with more confidence, more balance and more security that our bodies are not going to give out on us. Relax, but don’t collapse, through your tai chi and your life.