An Overview of the Strength and Relaxation in Tai Chi

Tai Chi is an internal martial art. That means that the source of one’s real power in Tai Chi does not stem from demonstrations of external strength, as one might witness in most fast kung fu moves. Many students have asked me how to develop their internal strength in Tai Chi. This process is not easy and takes time to accomplish as one may have to master relaxation techniques. Also, this process requires patience and an understanding of the principles of Tai Chi.

Practicing Tai Chi Quan first requires relaxation. However, relaxation does not imply weakness or collapse. In fact, it demonstrates internal power. If people can change their forms from stiff to soft and gentle, they will develop their internal strength as they practice Tai Chi. Also, nurturing this soft and gentle strength requires people to feel that their bones are separating, that the bones and muscles are separating, and that every move is starting from inside, generating from the lower body. What is more, people need to have an “arc” or “circle” in every movement and use 10 principles to check every move (Click the link to see all the 10 principles).

It is difficult to enter into the status of relaxation and softness for Tai Chi beginners. But if people practice Tai Chi appropriately, they will gradually nurture this principle or quality. This depends on whether there is an instructor to give directions, whether people are learning and practicing from the fundamentals, and whether people consider developing relaxation and softness as a priority while they practice. Nowadays, most people practicing Tai Chi do not start to learn and practice from the fundamentals because usually Tai Chi competitions require people to finish the Yang Style Tai Chi 42 form in less than 6 minutes and finish the 24 forms in less than 5 minutes. As a result, people think speed is important while doing Tai Chi, and they begin to practice Tai Chi at the speeds required by matches.

What is more, many people begin to learn Tai Chi by just focusing on the sequence of the forms themselves rather than learning Tai Chi deeply from the details of each move and each posture. Therefore, when people start their Tai Chi journey, they might ignore the five requirements of the breath, which are “fine, deep, even, slow, long” and the movement of energy inside of the body. By just focusing on sequence rather than the details, they may end up performing in a stiff manner, which means it is very difficult for them to feel relaxed and develop soft strength. Moreover, they may appear nervous in many places while doing Tai Chi.  Consequently, they may end up repeating their mistakes all the time, affecting how well they do Tai Chi and master internal strength. Related to this situation is the need to develop continuity from one form to the next.

One analogy that can exemplify this continuity is the string of pearls. All the forms must be connected much as one pearl is connected to another to form a string of pearls. If there is a break in the string, all the pearls will fall off and scatter. A string of pearls is certainly stronger and more beautiful than a single pearl.  In Tai Chi, likewise, the forms are not supposed to be performed stiffly in isolation of each other. All the forms unite in a beautiful flow of movements that are logically connected by the principles of Tai Chi. Even if people imagine connecting the forms like a string of pearls, they will not develop internal strength if they do the forms empty. That would be as bad as doing them fast like doing gymnastics. At competitions, some people connect the forms well but only in dance, demonstrating little internal power. The keys to developing internal power in Tai Chi are softness and relaxation                                                                                      

When people pursue relaxation and softness in their Tai Chi performance, they need to change their habit of nervousness which has [developed] over a long period of time. It is a difficult change because it requires people to pay attention carefully to all the details and improve gradually. Therefore, if people want to learn Tai Chi well, they have to learn it slowly, starting with each move and each posture while mobilizing the whole body to relax each joint, muscle, and tendon, and use the mind to realize grand emptiness both physically and mentally. When done properly, Tai Chi enables people to “forget” that they are even doing the forms. They may even “forget” about their surroundings and even themselves.

 Indeed, through the act of forgetting, considering that Tai Chi is performed correctly, humans and nature are united.  For example, when practicing the opening form, by raising their hands, first people need to have the idea of lengthening their hands into infinity. They need to feel that the hands are not theirs anymore while adjusting the hips, crotch, knees and as many joints as possible to make sure there is no tension in the body. In addition, as they form a posture, they can see the upper body as the great void, the lower body as solid earth, and the middle body as empty, which is the status of Tai Chi. When they raise their hands, they should not raise them casually. They need to raise them slowly to find feelings of relaxation. They should not move into the forms unless their mind is initiating them and not move the upper body unless the lower body is moving. At the same time, they need to pay attention to some important joints such as the shoulders, elbows, hips, and knees all the time to check to see if these places are relaxed. That is, are the shoulders lowered, the elbows dropped, the hips relaxed, and the crotch lowered? It is clear that when they do the forms, they should not do them casually at all. They must pay attention to the details, and work hard on the forms deeply, keeping in mind the forms should be connected smoothly.

In fact, as part of this dynamic, it is very important to be aware of the transition parts. An important rule to follow is continuing the mind when the strength is stopped and continuing the spirit when the mind is stopped to achieve relaxation. People must also use their hearts to feel, use their hearts to practice, and use their hearts to open to their spirit.  

In a word, if people want to enjoy the real effects of doing Tai Chi, they must first relax and then practice it from the fundamentals, from each move and each posture. They must be patient and not to do it fast at first and not learn a lot at one time. As well, their forms must not be empty. Instead, the forms must demonstrate one’s internal power. My teachers always told me when I learned Tai Chi that the moves we do in Tai Chi will not be ours unless we practice them thousands of times under the condition of doing them correctly. Always remember that more haste means less speed.                                          


May every Tai Chi fan have a happy, healthy, and long life!


                                                          Arthur Du