Relaxing, Structure and Effectiveness
by Neil Webster and Julian Jaffe
This article is the first in a series that we will be publishing as a prelude to our book about using mind-models to enhance traditional Tai Chi training methods. Mind-models are a valuable adjunct to traditional training methods because they not only help to explain training concepts in familiar terms, but also allow you to train using your mind – something that is often referred to as visualisation techniques.
When we ask you to relax, many people interpret this as meaning let go — as in, disengage your muscles and/or disengage your brain.
But, if you are standing and asked to relax — what does relaxed actually mean?
There are a number of different perspectives on the feeling of being relaxed.
Here’s one that we hope you’ll like!
If you think of structure in your body as being the combined, and synergistic, effect, of muscle, skeleton, joints and fascia (tendons, ligaments, fascial network) to resist a force, such as gravity, then effective structure is the structure that uses the minimum amount of energy to cope with that force.
Why bother being effective with energy and structure?
Because you’ll get very tired very quickly if you use a lot of energy just to maintain your structure.
How can you test if your structure is effective?
This is relatively easy to test for gravitational force, and is one of the key aspects in learning Tai Chi. Try standing still for 20 minutes without getting worn out and you’ll see what we mean.
There are a few tricks that make this easier.
Allow gravity, as far as possible, to act down the vertical axis of your skeleton. Align your bones and joints so that the effect of gravity takes the shortest route through them, which allows you to relax your muscles – a feeling akin to hanging the flesh off your bones.
But what keeps the bones aligned if not muscles?
There is another element to structure that does this — your fascial tissue. And it burns very little energy. In fact, it not only contributes to structure, but can store and release energy — elastic energy.
That means, alignment is of bones, joints, tendons and ligaments in such a way as to minimise the muscle power required to counter the downward force of gravity.
In this regard, knowing what alignment is, and what relaxation of muscle is, is key to overall relaxation. Likewise, knowing what contracted is, is key to knowing what non-contracted is. And knowing what expanded is, is key to knowing what non-expanded is.
You can try this out. If you play around with, say, your arm. Try contracting all the muscles in your arm as hard as you can, focusing on contracting around your joints. Then slowly release the contraction a step at a time. You’ll no doubt feel a range of contraction rather than just a contracted or non-contracted state.
Now, expand everything in your arm, again focusing on expanding around your joints. Then, slowly let the expansion off until you feel that your arm is relaxed.
If you try the complete cycle: contract, relax, and expand, slowly, you will feel a range of contraction, relaxation and expansion. This gives some very useful effects: not only a feeling of pumping, but also the feeling and understanding that relaxation is a range, or spectrum, not a single state.
How does this fit into your structure?
It gives you the feelings you need to be aware of for relaxation. The points at which it’s not contraction and it’s not expansion, are when you are relaxed.
You can try the full ‘pumping’ cycle in a traditional Tai Chi stance and feel where the boundaries between contraction, relaxation and expansion are.
Because gravity acts as a compressional force, the best state to be in is just-relaxed, that is around point A in the diagram. Here gravity will be compressing your tendons and bones vertically, but you will not actively be contracting.
From this position, you can contract if you need to create space and this also gives you the ability to move through the relaxed range to the expanded state. The compressed tendons and ligaments have an elasticity that you can release to create that movement.
Why is this so useful in Tai Chi?
Because allowing gravity to work through the shortest path strengthens and builds up that path, while also building in ‘structural memory’, and movement within the relaxed range is undetectable to an opponent. It is also one of the keys to feeling internal energy movement!