One of the things I was constantly told when I was a beginning student, and now I tell my students is that they need to relax more. Just relax. So simple, right?
How can you relax when you're busy trying to remember your posture movements and transitions, you only have a few minutes to practice, you have to get groceries, the laundry needs to be done, the kids are screaming or need to be transported, your arthritis is bothering you, and on and on....
I have puzzled over this myself for many years and I think I may have finally unlocked the secret! And it's deceptively simple. Ready?
be......... here.......... now!!
It's a bit counter-intuitive but the more you can concentrate on what you are doing IN THIS MOMENT, the less the rest of your external world that creeps in and the more you end up relaxing. The deeper you focus your awareness on the single movement you are performing (rotating your waist, sinking into your root, extending your hand/foot), the more your physical body will drop tension in other areas and relax. And this is not a forced, conscious "trying to" relaxation. It just happens without you even noticing or realizing it at first.
Another thing that often sabotages students' attempts at relaxation is simple physical discomfort. You absolutely cannot relax if you are uncomfortable. I keep telling my students that if they feel any pain or discomfort then they need to adjust the posture so that it feels comfortable. We have all heard the expression "No Pain, No Gain" especially associated with increasing performance in sports. Well fawgeddaboudit for Tai Chi. If anything, in Tai Chi, it will set you back and can easily lead to injury from improper body positioning and strain.
So start by getting comfortable. If your postures are leading to really tense muscles and regular soreness, talk to your teacher and work out variations that are best for you. We all do Tai Chi differently because we all have different bodies and capabilities. And even those are continuously changing if we are practicing regularly.
Let's do a little simple relaxation exercise. Assume your starting Wu Ji pose. Just stand there for a few moments and pay attention to all of your body. First, centre your weight to rest equally on both feet, preferably mostly in your heels, but also throughout the bottom of your foot. Now take a few abdominal breaths and check other parts of your body. To check your shoulders, shrug them up military style and then let them fall loosely. Now they will be relaxed. Tense and wiggle your toes and then just let them be. Now they should be relaxed. Clench your fists and then extend your fingers as far down as possible and then just let them hang. Now they are relaxed. And you can do the same with any other parts of your body; knees, elbows, neck, head. So you will now be pretty fully relaxed and ready to start your form practice.
Simple, right?! And all you had to do was to pay attention to what you were doing and feeling in that moment. You were Being Here Now.
Tai Chi can be practiced on many levels - from simple exercises to advanced martial art skills - but most people that I encounter are looking for the health benefits that they have heard about. Bottom line: The more often and deeper you can relax, the more those benefits will begin to manifest and appear in your life. So pay attention, relax and enjoy.
Keep on playing,