Someone asked me recently whether there were any styles of tai chi which only focus on relaxation. It is a good question, especially in the light of the idea which seems to persist among the general public of tai chi being a very soft form exercise or, as it says on the NHS website, one which involves "lots of flowing, easy movements that don't stress the joints or muscles". Now, while the NHS's depiction of tai chi is true in some respects, and while I understand the need to promote simple messages to a population which can't seem to grasp nuances, it would not be true to suggest that tai chi can ever be "just" about anything. The great strength of tai chi, it seems to me, is that it is an integrated and multi-functional form of training. It will simultaneously develop your balance and co-ordination, your leg strength, your breathing, memory, concentration and mindfulness, and, yes, your ability to "relax" - along with many other capacities.
In English, the sorts of ideas that come to mind when we use the word "relax" might cover some of the following (here I am quoting from my laptop's thesaurus): to ease up, slow down, de-stress, unbend, rest, put one's feet up, take it easy, slacken off, be at leisure, laze, luxuriate, do nothing. Frankly, you don't need tai chi to help you do any of these things, and, in fact, if you only want to learn to relax more, there are easier and simpler ways of doing it. (The same goes for any of the other benefits of tai chi if you consider them in isolation: if you just want to learn to be more mindful, do a mindfulness course; if you are solely interested in falls prevention, go to a class which deals with this.) However, it remains true that tai chi may very well help you do some of these things - to slow down and de-stress, for example - if you practise and apply what you learn in class to everyday life. It may not feel that way at first, either, given that many people are quite surprised by the strength of the workout that a good tai chi session can give you.
Good tai chi training will certainly not allow you to put your feet up and do nothing! The idea of relaxation which applies in tai chi is really of a very different and much more specific kind. In fact it is so specific that frequently tai chi teachers will use the Chinese term "sōng" (松) or "fàngsōng" (放松) to refer to what they mean instead of the English word, which, as we have seen, carries many of the wrong sorts of connotations. The primary meaning of the character "sōng" (松) is "to loosen". The "fàng" in "fàngsōng" (放松) primarily means "to put or place", though it can also mean "to free or let go". The idea, then, is to loosen or release tension in the body but not in such a way as to make your physical structure collapse, go limp or slack. If we refer back to tai chi's original purpose as a martial art, such "wet noodle" kind of "relaxation" would obviously be useless. Instead we are seeking to take away any extraneous stiffness which makes movement inefficient or slows it down. (Yes, I know that that is a paradox: we learn to move slowly so that we can learn to move quickly! Tai chi training is full of such apparent contradictions.) To do this, we need to work out how to align the skeletal structure so that it is able to support us properly, the stabilising muscles can work with as little effort as possible and joints can move freely. Then we can move by transmitting energy from the ground upwards in a way which feels smooth, springy and "alive".
Given that people are invariably much more tense and stiff than they think they are, this process of learning to release the chronic and mainly unconscious tension which accumulates in our bodies, simply as a result of living, takes a fair amount of time but is also a process which has to be undertaken consciously and deliberately. In fact, that character "fàng" (放) in "fàngsōng" is the same word as you would use if, for example, you wanted someone to "put" sugar in your coffee, so I wonder - and I am no linguistic scholar, so this is just a speculation - whether the Chinese term implies that we should "put" looseness into our bodies in a very deliberate way. "Relaxation", then, from this point of view, becomes an intentional process which is led by the mind; it becomes, to begin with at least (and for a long time afterwards), something active rather than passive.
Obviously, a mind which is itself tense and inattentive is not likely to be able to achieve this. The mind, therefore, needs to drop everyday concerns and avoid distractions during your tai chi practice. The mental focus needs to be on what is going on internally while you are carrying out the various tai chi movements. This in itself is quite tricky, which is why many teachers now use standing practices, simpler exercises such as our silk-reeling drills and qigong quite extensively; the easier movements (or lack of substantial movement, in the case of standing meditation) allow beginners to listen to their bodies more carefully and deeply because they are not having to worry about remembering a sequence of movements. It is also important, I think, to avoid the tai chi itself becoming a source of mental tension. The mind cannot relax if it is tired, frustrated or annoyed, so if you find that your training is giving rise to these sorts of feelings, be kind to yourself and perhaps go back to a simpler form of exercise (such as silk-reeling), revert to some movements that you know really well or just practise in a freer way, worrying less about performing the moves correctly and simply enjoying the feeling of flow and spontaneity that emerges.
(It is beyond the scope of this piece to deal with the connection between the emotions and the release of the physical body. Suffice to say here that it is possible - though uncommon - that during your practice the loosening of bound physical tension may result in the welling-up of suppressed emotions. This may simply come as a surprise or may even be rather painful, but is not necessarily a problem - seek the advice of your teacher or a professional if you become concerned.)
Clearly, then there is a good deal, both physical and mental, to the concept of "relaxation" in tai chi. Different schools and styles will focus on it to varying degrees, but to my mind it is only one of the many aspects of tai chi that make the art so powerful, albeit a very important one. It is also an aspect of tai chi that all students will need to keep coming back to, at deeper and deeper levels, over the whole lifetime of their practice. Even "masters" need to keep working towards the goal of the perfect balance between yin and yang which Chen Xiaowang puts in these terms when he describes the fifth of the five levels of tai chi:
the hard complements the soft and movements should be relaxed, dynamic, springy and lively. Every move and every motionless instant is in accordance with taiji principles, as are the movements of the whole body. This means that every part of the body is very sensitive and quick to react when the need arises.
If this seems like a demanding goal to aim for, just relax (in the tai chi way) and enjoy the journey that you will need to take to get there.
Andrew Howard is a Chen-style Tai Chi Instructor teaching in West Dorset, UK.