When we’re starting out practicing tai chi we often think we are soft and relaxed when we’re actually pretty far from it. This can be frustrating on a number of levels. First of all, who am I (or your teacher) to tell you that you are not relaxed when your body is giving you every indication that you are? Secondly, what is the value of a teacher pointing out this error continually which seems to undermine progress?
Fact 1: Your body and mind can tell you two different things.
The idea of being told to do something when you thought you already were, can be seen in many areas of taichi. You are standing in a posture, in relaxed la-la land and your instructor tells you to relax. What did he think you were doing! You are performing a move slowly, i.e. Matrix style, and your instructor tells you to slow down. You tell a student to hold a “deep” horse stance for 90 seconds and counsel them to stop rising up. They look perturbed. You place them back in a horse stance under a shelf and they bonk their head. They are stupefied that they were moving. How are these diametrically opposed situations possible? Because emotions such as performance anxiety or the pain from the deep stance sends messages to the brain to improve the situation, while not letting you in on the process. This is a good thing. This function is inhibited in depressed people.
And now we start to see some of the efficient beauty of taichi. Tai chi allows us to step outside of our body’s box and wake up to autonomic processes so that we can actively control them. By waking up to this trickery we can make minute changes and begin to enjoy progress.
Fact 2: Progress has to be from hard to soft
We need to stop beating ourselves up for not being “relaxed.” It is not a normal state for nearly everyone. Even if you are that laidback person you dream you are, taichi is building a relaxation that is not achievable without training. This is the magical relaxation that stumps doctors because it heals. This is the relaxation that is normally only found on vacation. However, in this case it is free and can happen in your backyard.
Yin Yang Theory and Monitoring Progress in Tai Chi
Here is an older article from Chen Xiaowang that covers the progress made from continual practice. But first, let me say that it took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that the progression is going to be from hard to soft. From “external” to “internal.” Yin Yang Theory gives us a paradigm where we can gave our progress incrementally. First 90/10, then 80/20 etc. until we become more balanced in power and form. This is the classical way in taichi and it’s probably just a reality.
They may not have mastered the application but by knowing how to mislead his opponent the student may occasionally be able to throw off his opponent. Even then, he may be unable to maintain his own balance. Such a situation is thus termed “the 10% yin and 90% yang; top heavy staff”.
One may be able to move and ward off an attack but may easily commit errors like throwing-off or collapsing and over-exerting or confronting force. Because of these, during push-hands, one cannot move according to the sequence of warding-off, grabbing, pressing and pushing down. A person with this level of skill is described as ‘20% yin, 80% yang: an undisciplined new hand.’
Even in leading-in and expelling-out the opponent, one [may] feel stiff and much effort is required. As such the skill at this stage is described as ‘30% yin, 70% yang, still on the hard side.’
On contact with the opponent, one can immediately change one’s action and thus dissolve the on-coming force with ease, exhibiting the special characteristics of going along with the movements of the opponent but yet changing one’s own actions all the time to counteract the opponent’s action, exerting the right force, adjusting internally, predicting the opponent’s intention, subduing one’s own actions, expressing precise force and hitting the target accurately. Therefore, a person attaining this level of kung fu is described as ‘40% yin, 60% yang; akin to a good practitioner.’
As regarding the martial skill, at this level the gang (hard) should complement the rou (soft), it (the form) should be relaxed, dynamic, springy and lively. Every move and every motionless instant is in accordance with taichi principle, as are the movements of the whole body. This means that every part of the body should be very sensitive and quick to react when the need arises. So much so that every part of the body can act as a fist to attack whenever is in contact with the opponent’s body. There should also be constant interchange between expressing and conserving of force and the stance should be firm as though supported from all sides.
The description for this level of kung fu is that it is the ‘only one that plays with 50% yin and 50% yang, without any bias towards yin or yang, and the person who can do this is termed a good master. A good master makes every move according to the taichi principles which demands that every move be invisible.’
Here is the take-home message
At the uppermost level of development we land at and even 50/50 split between hard and soft. On one hand this illustrates how hard (yang/unrelaxed) we all probably are at the beginning of training. On the other hand, it defines what soft really means. Softness is the ability to conceal and maintain the potential of a significant force. It is not the weak, flabby softness out on the end of the soft-to-hard spectrum.
By continual work on softness and relaxation we are simultaneously achieving the health and mental benefits from “relaxation” and building up true internal power. Any time that we find a singular focus that results in multiple benefits we know we are participating in a great and natural process.