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Home Training Tips Relaxation and extension

Relaxation and extension

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Relaxation and extension are two complementary qualities that are focussed on through much of the training in Gao style, particularly in the variations that come from Chan Chun Feng in Taiwan.

Lets start with relaxation.
In terms of mechanical efficiency a more relaxed body is able to move more freely. It need not overcome its own resistance. This can apply in large movements as found in techniques and forms, but also in smaller movements, like breathing, or even smiling.

An expression from the Tai chi classics describes this kind of freedom and lightness 'a fly cannot land, a feather cannot touch without setting the whole body in motion.' To give this image a deeper anatomical sense I also like to talk about the surface of the bodies joints. The cartilage that lines the joints, lubricated by synovial fluid is more slippery than ice on ice. A well relaxed and aligned body can move more easily than ice on ice.

One way to have more available energy is to waste less. I wish George Bush would get that idea, but it's a difficult one for a cokehead to grasp.

Equally importantly there is a proprioreceptive effect to being more relaxed. If your body is tense it cannot register small forces. Imagine holding out an empty hand with your eyes closed. If someone put a leaf on it you probably feel the added weight (I'm assuming that the leaf is not from a palm tree but something more moderate in size).

Now imagine the same scenario, but imagine you are holding a weight of several kilograms at the same time that the leaf is added. You probably wouldn't feel the addition of the leaf.

Our bodies are sensitive not so much to force itself, but to relative changes in force. Start with a big force and it'll take a change proportionate to that force to register.

This means that if you are relaxed, or applying less force to yourself, you will be more sensitive to changes in your posture. This is very useful in developing alignment and body awareness.

It takes a little thought to appreciate how a virtuous cycle is created. The more you relax, the more sensitive to your body and alignment you become. The more sensitive you become the more you can make subtle, effective changes in alignment. The better the alignment the easier the relaxation.

Another important concept in physical relaxation and body awareness is that it is impossible for us humans to do anything without moving, and that involves muscular contraction somewhere along the line. We cannot even express or feel the simplest emotions without there being an effect somewhere in the body.

Paying attention to tension and relaxation, becoming more open to sensation gives a means to develop a way to be aware of those subtler forces that control mood and thinking, the habitual tension and posture that we tend to carry. This can have wonderful effects on health and peace of mind, though it can also seem like a can of worms sometimes. Still it is fascinating and I recommend it as a way of extending the practise in a deeply personal way.

Thus relaxation is basic to Ba Gua, and internal arts altogether. As a base you cannot do too much.

However there comes a point where the degree of relaxation and sensitivity ceases to be useful in the real time application of martial arts. This is a subject many internal artists get mired in and I'd like to clarify it as best I can.

As the sensitivity starts to notice very subtle relations between posture, tension, emotion and mental states, it loses its relevance in the sphere of combat.

However the forces involved are such a different order of magnitude to those involved in a punch, kick or throw, that such subtlety is not useful in combat.

I think a lot of Tai Chi teachers in particular have become confused by the strong but essentially internal feelings this awareness makes available with the kind of forces relevant in combat. After a couple of generations of teachers without combat experience passing on these ideas, lineages forget how to deal with real fighting force.

It may be possible to use such subtle forces in combat. Again it maybe possible. I think it would require a huge degree of familiarity and relaxation with the forces and rhythms of real fighting to apply such subtle distinctions in a high force high speed situations. That familiarity is more likely to come from free fighting exposure than from solo or controlled practise.

Now lets return to the physical alignment that sensitivity and awareness can develop. Once it is achieved and trained in then your body will be able to deal with large forces and remain relaxed.

This gives a discernment and sensitivity to external force that allows your body to move in appropriate directions automatically. A useful quality in martial arts.

Also by staying relaxed it allows the efficient transfer of force from our bodies, and into our opponents. I like to imagine a Newton's cradle, the executive toy with several metal balls hanging on strings. When a ball on one end is dropped so it swings down to hit the next in line, the force is transferred very efficiently. The ball that was dropped stops moving, and the one that was on the far end of the line bounces up with the force.

In this illustration the string the ball hangs from is like our muscles, it moves freely. If the ball was badly hinged it would not drop with the same force. If you just pushed the ball in place you would not have the effect of the end ball flying up, but rather the whole series of balls would begin to swing.

Now lets shift our attention to extension, and the long elegant body postures that typify our branch of Gao style.

Looking at the length, or extension of the postures in our system of Ba Gua it is easy to think that they are too elongated to be practical. I agree in terms of the actual body shapes you find in combat, and at the same time I think this is missing the point. The purpose of elongated postures is rarely to be practical, but to train specific qualities and alignments. It is a developmental tool.

To extend well it can be helpful to involve the imagination. Imagine going a little bit further while keeping the same relaxation. If you do this the body will begin to align itself naturally. A string when pulled will describe a straight line. It is the same idea here.

We can extend this model of the body as a single extended string, to the idea of the body as a web of strings held in a three dimensional pattern by our bones and other structures. Thus we can improve on the image of pulling in two directions along the single string, to that of pulling in multiple directions to open up the spaces in the web.

This use of the imagination , or intention has another aspect. In internal arts many people have a tendency to talk about qi, often without being at all clear about its relevance or place. In this context it is usually better to forget about qi, and remember the idea from the classics 'qi sui Yi' energy follows intention. If there is intention the energy will arrive.

There is a western equivalent to this quote. ' the body organises itself according to the end result'. If all you consider is the energy then things get confusing and stuck.

When you combine extension with relaxation effectively you create the conditions which help your body to organise in a different way. Imagine I have my hand and body at full extension and move with my hand against a force at 90 degrees to my arm. Then the degree of extension creates a considerable mechanical disadvantage due to leverage. This mechanical disadvantage makes the intention much clearer, and highlights the necessity of the using the body in a well organised and aligned fashion.

Much of the time in solo practice the forces we move against are imaginary, products of the mind. Because the forces are imaginary we can maintain a high degree of relaxation while training this particular way of organising the body.