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What is relaxation in Taijiquan?

Relaxation 放松 is one of the basic qualities in Taijiquan. In Chinese we would refer to these basic aspects of our training as "requirements" 要求. However, relaxation is often declared to be the sole purpose of Taijiquan. In my experience this thought leads to a somewhat wrong understanding and makes real progess in the art difficult. Because relaxation, loosening or the associated sinking are prerequisites for Taijiquan, but not the only movement goals. This is at least true of our art. Though we can achieve positive results with "relaxation", excessive relaxation and excessive "letting go" are irrelevant from a martial point of view and can also lead to physical problems from a health perspective.

The beginning in Taijiquan - the first stages

Levels in Taijiquan (Tai-Chi)

The training can be imagined as a layered learning process(1). In Chinese theory this has actually been explained quite clearly: in the first training level we talk about learning basic properties and a basic structure with regard to body and mind posture. In this first stage, the body should first be relaxed and the muscles should loosen up. This allows the body posture to be holistically realigned through corrections to the bone structure. Relaxation is absolutely right here and necessary for the next steps.

On the second level, joints become more loose and they develop a better general movability. This means that the muscles can move freely and the joints are unblocked due to the relaxed basic tone. In Chinese we could speak of fangsong 放松 (relaxed) in the first stage and linghuo 灵活 (flexible) in the second. Movements in this stage are usually large and expansive, i.e. long forces, also called "clear forces", are possible here, but not yet the more application-oriented small (or short) forces. These first two levels, and especially the first, often shape the public image of Taijiquan these days. Slow movements, carried out in a relaxed and expansive manner, perhaps interrupted by a sudden, long punch from time to time. There is nothing generally wrong with this form of practice.

However, the notion of pure relaxation can be somewhat deceptive. For example, if beginners try to relax their legs during practice. Then all their body weight will simply sink into their "unprotected" joints. We have to become more informed about right relaxation at some point...   

Everything's changing - the advanced levels

If you do not just want to do Taijiquan as a bit of relaxation exercise at the weekends (which would be perfectly fine!), but your are interested in gongfu and skill (which is also fine to me :), then it is not enough to be just relaxed and flexible. You have to transform the relaxation and flexibility of the first two training levels.(2)

This actually happens in what I would call the third level, or rather with the intention of a third level training practice. This is about xu fa 蓄发, storing and sending out, which primarily affects the tissue structure and fascia. Integrated, holistic forces can be generated here via an improved body structure and axially aligned movements, which are much smaller in comparison to the previous training levels. They can be generated by segmented movements in the body. So this is why we can speak of "small" or "short [distance]" forces here. While you mainly think about the joints in the second stage, you will start to move in a much more demanding kind of way here in the advanced frame. The tissues can take on "collecting and discharging" qualities. This is a very exciting training level. Some structures and training aspects of the previous levels will be turned "upside down" and some advice in this level might even sound contradictory to previous training cues.

This level is no longer just about aligning body structure, but rather moving all structures, including internal ones. We tend to differentiate our body parts in the first two levels, but here we connect everything again and see how all parts are interrelated. Incorrect rotation of the hips, for example, or a wrong connection of the pelvic floor can block centre movement and so on. Here you build on the good basic work of the first stages. This third level can no longer be corrected as easily as before. The teacher has to show it! It is too fine and individual. The first two levels can be conveyed in a fairly standardized way, but not the third.

Training levels in gongfu - it goes on and on

From this third stage and by means of "storing and sending out" we can develop shaking, vibrating forces, called tandou 弹抖, as can be clearly seen in the video below, for example. This becomes clear on the fourth level, in which it is primarily about internal aspects (neigong 内功), continuously filling the frame and so on. Forces become finer along the way, which is why they can at some stage be called "hidden forces".

Overall, there is an actual transformation happening. Relaxation is actually being transformed along the Taiji path. It's not like "I train a bit of Taijiquan and relax and afterwards I a couple of push-ups for my arms", but I mean a real transformation. Weight training can complement, improve or even prevent this, depending on how it is being done. But the actual Taijiquan training is based on the transformation, on the change of the tissues, the tendons and bones, as it is called in the ancient manuals.


(1) With these training levels I do not mean a completely rigid or standardized training structure. Rather, it is about the coordinated acquisition of certain qualities, which are largely linked to one another. If you have reached a certain level, that does not mean that you will never train again at the levels you learned before. You can always go back, depending on your training goal. I will probably write more about this in future articles.

(2) At this point I would like to briefly mention that when there is uncertainty as to how the training can continue, this often happens before a "next level". At these thresholds, as a teacher, I personally think it is necessary to highlight the change in the qualities required for the next level and to motivate the student to leave the comfort zone of the previous level. Of course, you can also just see if your student gets it but I would find that a little bit boring to do as a teacher :)

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