Monday, January 14, 2013

Just Relax?

“From Extreme Softness Comes Great Strength/Hardness”

“These Strengths are not Intuitive; They Must be Learned”

In the early blog on this site about Silk Reeling, there was some discussion about how relaxing allowed the entire length of the muscle-tendon channels and connective tissue to be trained as a whole.  In the blog on Jin there was discussion about how local joint usage diluted the strengths from the support of the ground and from gravity; the idea is to relax local tensions in order to let the ground’s support and gravity do most of the work.

The overarching idea is that in order to learn a new form of movement you have to stay relaxed while learning the new movement… otherwise, old movement habits will be retained and you will make no progress.

Overall, in this series of blogs, there has been discussion about re-training/re-patterning the body to use strength in a very different way than the way we’ve done it since babyhood.  The second italicized quote above says it all: “these strengths are not intuitive; they must be trained”.  Trying to train while at the same time maintaining your old strengths and tensions means that you cannot learn to re-pattern the body in the new way.  It’s for this reason that in early training, many old habits must be unlearned and that often means avoiding movements, etc., that only reinforce the old ways of moving.

For instance, weight-lifting using your old form of strength, doing the same old forms and techniques, applications, and so on, will stop progress into a new form of movement because you will confuse your body doing a little bit of the old movement and a little bit of the new movement. 

Learning to use the power of the earth’s support and gravity, using the dantian, using breath, using the body as a connected unit, etc… that’s a new form of movement.  Or it should be, if you’re not just doing an incomplete assimilation of the new skills.

Learning new skills requires relaxation, for the above reasons.  However, many times a distortion, based on misunderstanding, creeps into some peoples’ martial training.  Some people begin to think that if they just relax, somehow the skills of the internal arts will visit their body.   Occasionally I hear of some martial-school where the instructor has encouraged students to work until they’re completely exhausted and then they will learn to move in a ‘relaxed’ way.  The problem is that no matter how exhausted and ‘relaxed’ someone is, there’s still the question of the basic movement skills.  Those skills take knowledge, information, practice, and some years to learn.  Getting exhausted so that you’re ‘relaxed’ is not going to teach you how to move with dantian, jin, kokyu, etc., any more than getting exhausted and relaxed is going to suddenly imbue you with the ability to play the piano or analyze quantum mechanics.

Another point to make is that a person cannot really relax unless they’re conditioned.  I’ve often seen someone who is physically strong brag about the fact that he is “relaxed”.  Sure, he’s relaxed, but he’s strong, and 99.9% of the time he’s still mostly using normal strength, despite any claims to the contrary.  Being “relaxed” can happen in normal strength or in internal strength, but a limited knowledge of a few jin tricks is not going to ever result in the type of relaxation referred to in the old classics about internal strength.

Let’s look at the example of lifting the two arms upward as is done at the beginning of most Taiji forms.  The average person emulating that movement is going to mainly use shoulder muscles.  They’re never trained any other way to lift the arms, so even if they get exhausted and ‘relaxed’, they’re still going to use those shoulder muscles.  They have no concept of any other way to do it.

A knowledgeable Taiji practitioner is going to use jin, the body connectivity, the dantian, and so on, to lift the arms.  It will look the same (usually) as the other way of lifting the arms, but it’s very different.  To lift the arms with dantian, connectivity, jin, etc., takes a long while to learn and it also takes some amount of practice to become proficient and strong in moving that new way.  Only after that new strength has become conditioned can the practitioner really “relax”.  Working to exhaustion is not the same thing at all.

As the body becomes conditioned and patterned to hit or move with the whole-body, dantien, jin, and other factors, its power becomes great and feels very hard when a hit or application is made.  That’s why there’s the old saying about “Great hardness comes from extreme softness”.


  1. nice post. enjoyable read, do you have any advice on helping to connect the body? are we talking connection through intent or a physical connection.
    chris knight

  2. Hi Chris:

    Well, most styles use some form of stretch-extension-hold exercises as part of the process. But then you have to practice also some moving with a slight extension, controlling with the dantian, jin, and so on, so the processes used by different arts will vary on the particulars. Unfortunately, it tends to boil down once again "get someone qualified to help start you off". And of course, not everyone with a shingle out is really qualified, so some care is needed.

    This blog has a lot to do with raising the general level of baseline knowledge so that people will have a better idea of what to look and ask for, in terms of instruction.



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  4. "For instance, weight-lifting using your old form of strength, doing the same old forms and techniques, applications, and so on, will stop progress into a new form of movement because you will confuse your body doing a little bit of the old movement and a little bit of the new movement."

    Is there an internal way to lift or do you just mean that lifting alongside internal practice will make things more difficult?

    Can certain lifts and calisthenics be done with jin?

    1. Hi Thomas:

      It's not really any different than that 2-arm raise example I used: you can raise the arms with shoulder strength or you can raise the arms with jin, connection, dantian, etc. First though you have to learn to use jin, connection, dantian, etc., and it's only while you're learning to use this new form of strength that you need to avoid weight-lifting (because you'll automatically use the old form of strength). Once you've learned to use the new form of strength you can also apply it to weight-lifting, neigongs, etc.

      The only reason you hear admonitions not to spar, compete, weight-lift, etc., as you're learning an internal martial-art is because it's almost impossible to make the transition to the new form of strength if you keep doing things that reinforce the old forms of strength.

    2. Thanks for the reply.

      I'm wondering: if I do a bunch of a calisthenics with pure jin should I not experience muscle soreness?

    3. Hi Thomas:

      Yes, of course you will, assuming you overwork the muscles. Jin is a "trained force skill" and it attempts to use the support of the ground or the weight from gravity to do most of the work. But managing, for instance, the solidity of the ground in a straight jin line still takes muscles. It's just that the muscles are coordinated to do a different mission than what they would normally do in isolation or normal grouping.

      So sure, the muscles are used, but just in a very different way and in a way that included the connective tissue in a different way and the gravity forces in a different way.

  5. Mike, I'm really impressed by these blog posts -- and grateful for the work you've put into them. I have a question: the 10-minute (or longer) pushup is famous in Systema and I took one objective to be, at that level of exhaustion, you're going to have to find a totally different way to breathe and move (which I failed at so far), making a clear distinction that this is not due to regular muscular effort. No doubt this is an indirect, failure-prone process vs. learning directly from hands-on instruction, but I'm really stubborn. Or can you fool yourself in so many ways that there's no substitute for hands-on experience and confirmation? I hate answering my own question.

    1. Hi James:

      I'm not sure what to say because I can't see how a long, slow push-up is going to lead to internal strength. As a general rule, when you're first learning full-blown internal-strength you want to relax almost totally and allow the lengthwise connections of the body to slowly develop. As I imagine it, a prolonged push-up would force some areas of my body to tense from the strain, so while that might develop some strength, it's probably really going to be more akin to normal strength.

      To be fair, I can trigger my "connection" (what I call 'suit', for convenience) and use it for a prolonged push-up and plank, but I wouldn't recommend doing that as a learning technique. There's easier ways to do it, in my opinion.



    2. Hi Mike, I don't claim it's effective, just that it could "lead to internal strength" in the sense that being thrown off a cliff "leads to" flying ;) (except when it doesn't -- but at least you can tell the difference).

      That is to say, one still has to figure it out on one's own (and good luck with that), but in a state of muscular exhaustion, if you do manage to move, you're know you're using connection to some degree. (maybe?)

      My motivation here is, after having such a clear framework for internal strength laid out, what does a beginner do to learn and get feedback, as in my case, in the absence of hands-on experience. I know as you mentioned above, it's not your intent with these posts, and again it boils down to physical transmission -- I'm just stubborn in wishing there were another way. But again, thank you for these posts, they are really turning on lightbulbs for me and I'm sure when the time is right I'll have my chance.

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  7. Hey Mike. I'm confused as to what is meant by the movement of the dan tien. Assuming that the dan tien is a ball of sorts, when people say "the dan tien moves backwards" are they referring to the ball actually shifting backwards or rolling so the top goes backwards? If I were to look at somebody from the left side, the ball would be rotating clockwise. Is this understanding correct? Thanks.