Is it possible to relax and still hold up your arm?
Strictly speaking, and depending upon your interpretation of ‘relax’, it’s a bit of a contradiction. If you relax your arm, it will fall; but if you hold it up, some of your muscles are tense. So what does “relax“ mean in tai chi and Qigong?
When a boat sits in water, the hull is trying to sink to the bottom; in other words, it responds to gravity. Simultaneously, the force of the water around the hull is pushing the boat upwards.
If you lift your arm and relax it completely, it will fall; so the problem is, how do you achieve the feeling of the arm being supported, as if by the water surrounding it?
- If you hold your arm up and then sink it like the hull of the boat, you more than likely breathed out.
- If, when lifting the arm in front of you, you make the angle between the upper arm and the body roughly 60º-70º and then try to drop the forearm only, it’s hard to do so without creating further tension in the shoulder. The arm is more comfortable when the wrist is slightly higher than the elbow.
- With the hand extended well away from the body, by sinking the shoulder, the elbow (being next in the chain of command) releases, but instead of actually dropping, the wrist (the third in the chain) softens internally.
- If you settle your shoulder and elbow, there is a sensation of the wrist rising slightly.
- When your centre of gravity lowers, you feel lighter/emptier above the waist.
Only use the muscles you need.
‘Relax your arm’ doesn’t necessarily mean make the whole body go floppy. What it means is that you should only use the necessary muscles to do the job of holding your arm in place.
When raising the arm, for example, you don’t need to borrow additional muscles to do the job by tensing either the forearm or upper arm muscles. However you do need to engage the muscles at the top of the arm where they meet the shoulder, e.g. the deltoid. It’s unnecessary to engage the top of the shoulder itself (between the outside edge of the shoulder and the neck) as this also engages the neck.
Back to the boat analogy … When you start to involve additional muscles, it’s as though the boat is trying to use additional fittings, e.g. the deck or wheelhouse, to keep itself floating, rather than the hull alone.
Try ‘floating’ your arm.
1) Put your arm out to your side and then move it slightly forwards so that it’s no longer in line with your shoulders.
2) Without dropping your wrist, and as though your elbow were the keel of the boat, let the keel settle into the water.
The pivotal point.
In order for something to lift, something else has to sink; this creates a pivotal point. This point could also be considered to be a point of tension, or even compression.
In the case of the boat, the boat is squashing the water, but the water is also squashing the boat. Both parties are working equally. The point of pressure is where the two meet.
The same applies to the arm and the body, and in this case the pivotal point is between the upper arm and the body, but either side of that point, the body can remain soft and relaxed.
If it is an effort to lift the arm, it should simultaneously be an effort to lower the shoulder.
So why tense unnecessarily?
1. People are unaware that they are tensing unnecessarily – habit.
2. When tensing, they cannot feel which muscle is doing which task and therefore cannot isolate the individual parts.
3. The muscles needed to do the job are actually not strong enough, so borrowing becomes necessary.
Further to this point, people don’t like the initial sensation of muscles working correctly, so they revert to ‘habit’, which feels more comfortable.
Is the same true for the legs?
Yes…. but another time.
James Drewe teaches Taijiquan and qigong in both London and in Kent. Details of weekly classes can be found on the website, and there are classes for 2-person Taijiquan one Saturday a month.
Phone: 07836-710281 or 020-8883 3308