“Relax!” It’s a phrase you’re bound to hear if you study an internal martial art, especially any of the tai chi variants. But what exactly does it mean to relax? According to the dictionary definitions,
relax (verb) is
- to make less tense, rigid, or firm; make lax
- to diminish the force of
- to slacken or abate, as effort, attention, etc.
- to reduce or stop work, effort, application, etc., especially for the sake of rest and recreation.
None of those definitions sound congruent with studying a martial art. A key to effectiveness in any martial art is generating power. The ability to generate force is highly desirable from a martial perspective. So then what gives with all the emphasis on relaxing and diminishing force?
Not the type of relaxation we’re discussing.
To answer this question, we can examine the first exercise from the I-Liq Chuan (ILC) 15 basic exercises: rocking. The rocking exercise illustrates the first three points of the six physical points in ILC:
6 Physical Points
- Center of gravity
- Center of mass
- Spheres of offense and defense
- Spinning force of coordination
As the balance is rocked forwards and backwards between the toes and heel of the feet, the tension felt on the body changes. Gravity pulls the body differently as we rock back and forth, causing the muscles to activate differently as the balance shifts to the different parts of the foot. As the weight shifts towards the toes and the balls of the feet, tension rises up from the front of the ankles to the shins, quads, abdomen, and chest. Likewise, when the weight shifts back towards the heel, tension is experienced on the body starting from the back of the ankles and rising up the calves, hamstrings, glutes, lower back, and upper back. The further off balance you go, the more the muscles must fire to compensate and the higher the felt tension rises in the body.
As the weight shifts towards the center of the feet–i.e. the center of gravity–the tension felt by the body reaches a minimum. At this balance/center point, the body’s weight is being pulled straight down to the feet through the structure of the body. The structure of the body is stacked up such that the bones, ligaments, and tendons bear the brunt of the gravitational force pulling the body. When the structure of the body stacks into alignment at the center of the feet, the body is minimally tensed and maximally relaxed.
It is important to note that this state of relaxation is achieved by understanding the center of gravity and the alignment of the body’s structure to drop the weight to the center of the feet. This simple rocking exercise contains and illustrates the first three principles of the six physical points. Without alignment (stacking of the body structure), you cannot achieve the center of gravity; gravity will pull the misaligned body structure such that the weight does not fall on the balance point in the center of the feet and some joints will bear disproportionately more weight. Without the center of gravity (body structure stacked over the center of the feet), gravity will pull in the body in the off-balanced direction. To keep the body standing upright, muscles will need to activate more (i.e. the body becomes tensed) to compensate for the off-centered balance.
Returning to the original question, what’s so important about understanding relaxation? What is meant by relaxation is indeed the lack of tension or the lessening of force and effort. But the lessening of tension is relative to the muscular effort needed to maintain and move the body structure. If the center of gravity is achieved, the muscles can relax more as the body structure bears more of the weight. The relaxed muscles result in more potential force being available to move the body. With an off-balanced structure, the muscles are already engaged in compensating for the balance; the amount of potential muscular force available for body movement is diminished by the muscular effort necessary just to keep the body upright. The more off-balance you go, the more tensed the muscles become and the more pronounced your reduction in movement power will be.
Relaxation from the training perspective is the ability to use as little muscular effort as necessary to maintain the body, such that maximum muscular force is available for use. When dealing with either just gravitational force or the force of an opponent, misalignment of the body results in tenser muscles and less usable muscular force. Proper alignment allows the relaxation of the muscles. With relaxed muscles, it is far easier to move the body and generate power.