“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”.