The softest substance of the world Goes through the hardest. That-which-is-without-form penetrates that-which-has-no-crevice; Through this I know the benefit of taking no action. The teaching without words And the benefit of taking no action Are without comparison in the universe. — The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (Translated by Lin Yutang)
It’s normal not to be relaxed
Relaxation is not a normal state. We are trained to use force to do everything in our daily lives. Pushing a door, lifting a chair, stepping up stairs, grabbing a handrail on the train, all of this requires force. But these actions tighten our shoulders and our knees and in fact the structure of our entire body. People are not used to being in a relaxed state, and this often makes it hard for beginner tai chi students to relax in class.
Methods of relaxation
When talking about relaxation, your teacher might tell you to relax your shoulder, elbow, or even your mind. But how do we know when we’re really relaxed? How do we measure that?
Shopping with your friends, if you’re carrying too many bags you may feel tension in your shoulders. But once you put these shopping bags down, you feel your shoulders relaxing. When your shoulders feel relaxed, they sink down. In that case, sinking down is a measure of relaxation.
Sitting in a small seat on an airplane, you may bend your knees and feel tight. But after your neighbor gets up to use the lavatory and you extend your legs, you feel your knees relaxing. In this case, stretching and extension is a measure of relaxation.
When you are stressed, with too many things on your to-do list and on your mind, you may go to the park, and watch the swans swimming in the pond. At that moment you feel relaxed. Your mind quiets down. You can focus on the swans, and your mind lets go of the million other things you were worrying about. This ability to let go, even for a few moments, is a measure of relaxation.
Taking no action
Sinking, stretching, and quieting your mind are all methods of relaxation. Despite their differences, they can all be described by the phrase, “taking no action.” When you’re not lifting shopping bags, you’re relaxed. When you’re not trying to make space for others on a tight airplane, you’re relaxed. When you’re not thinking about the million things you have to do, you’re relaxed.
When you were a little baby, you didn’t have to lift bags, make space for others, or think about the million things you have to do. You were relaxed and soft. You learned to un-relax once you grew older. Society taught you how to do more, think more, and become more civilized. That’s why Daoists like to stay in the mountains far from civilization, so they don’t have to deal with tons of things. They can lead simple lives. Lao Tzu believed that taking no action is the key to relaxation.
Taking no action in Tai Chi
Use less effort
Sometimes I see a younger man doing Tai Chi who is stiffer than the oldest person in the class. Because this young man has a lot of energy, he really tries to forcefully lift his legs and move his arms. Meanwhile, the older man doesn’t have as much energy, so he uses the least effort to lift his legs and move his arms. He is more relaxed than the younger man. That’s the benefit of less effort, a concept which is very close to the meaning of taking no action.
Keep the structure
When you’re practicing Tai Chi, keep in mind that when you relax one body part too much, it might create tightness in another part of the body. For example, when you drop down your head to relax it, your neck is bent and stiff. As my father, Master Zhang Lu Ping said, “be relaxed, but relaxed with structure.” Without a good structure, you can’t relax your whole body.
Connect the whole body
How should your body feel when it’s totally relaxed? When you try to relax your shoulder, you should feel it sinking down to the ground. If that happens, it means your whole body is connected and relaxed. To minimize the effort, as Lao Tzu suggested, you need to connect your whole body. Once one part of the body makes a move, other parts follow. Trying to use only one muscle by itself will create unnecessary tension. By connecting the body and letting the parts work together, you won’t create this tension. For a more detailed explanation of how to relax the whole body together, all of the parts and all of the joints, check out my blog article, “Understanding the 8 Sections and 9 Joints.”
You have spent so much of your life learning to un-relax. Now it’s time to learn how to take no action. Imagine you could be that same baby you were in your childhood: soft, balanced, free from worry, relaxed, and young. That’s Lao Tzu’s way of relaxation. He called it “化繁为简, 返璞归真: transforming the complicated to simple is to regain one’s true self.”
Copyright Huan’s Tai Chi