This post was written by LK who is a guest blogger on Taichi-daily.com
As I continue working on fine-tuning my Yang style short form, I am experiencing mild but annoying pain in my lower back after each tai chi practice. To relieve the back pain, I was advised to “relax at the end of each movement and let go of unnecessary muscle tension”. The big question is how to do it. We are often told to relax, but rarely are we taught any practical tips on how to accomplish it. Learning muscle relaxation as a general skill can transform our motor (and quite possibly, mental) function, improving our handling of everyday tasks, professional and creative performance, and all types of exercise, including tai chi form. Here is my attempt at outlining some practical steps towards mastering this essential skill.
The first step to getting rid of excess muscle tension is to become aware of it, for our proprioception can grossly misinform us (read: the brain) about the amount of background tension in our body. Unless we consciously practice the skill of recognizing this tension, we become so habituated to it that it feels “right” and natural. The chances are that right now (while reading this) you are unknowingly either clenching your jaws, or hunching your shoulder(s), or pulling your head back into your shoulders or doing all of the above and then some. If you do not perceive any tension anywhere in your body (and you are not an experienced yogi or tai chi master) this means that you are merely unaware of the muscle tension you habitually carry in your body. Additionally, in stressful situations, we tend to tense up even more, mostly in our shoulder and neck area, and hold our breath. This is the physical manifestation of a typical fear response that further exacerbates any existing background muscle tension. Thus, it is imperative to build a habit of mentally scanning your body for any excess muscle tension throughout your day and notice when and where in the body it appears.*
Once you recognize the habitual tension patterns in your body, the second step is to regularly practice conscious release of this tension. One of the ways of experiencing the feeling of relaxation and practicing it was described by JC in a previous post about floating in the water Click here to read the post.
There must be many different relaxation methods, but below are the few I have tried and adopted in my own practice:
– Diaphragmatic breathing. Breathe into your stomach by expanding your lower abdomen (not the thorax) and release muscle tension on the outbreath. After few breaths you will instantly feel more relaxed and grounded.
– Progressive muscular relaxation method is used by athletes and involves active contraction of groups of muscles with subsequent relaxation. When a muscle is tightened for 5-6 seconds and then relaxed, the muscle returns to a more relaxed state. Repeat this process for all parts of the body, starting from feet going up the trunk, arms/hands, neck and the head (facial muscles, jaws, and eyes).
– Mental imagery (visual, kinesthetic, or other) is achieved by thinking of images or sensations that evoke relaxation in your body. You may need to play with different images to find out which ones work specifically for you, as they are determined by your individual life experiences and memories. Here are some suggestions to get you started: trigger a sensation of warmth or heaviness in your extremities; imagine yourself floating in the water, or melting into a puddle on the ground, or being suspended from a string like a marionette; think of peaceful images or sounds of nature (ocean waves, forest in the morning, sound of raindrops on a rooftop, etc.). These exercises are usually done in the supine or semi-supine position (laying on your back on the floor or another firm surface).
– Give verbal directions to yourself to let go of muscle tension and lengthen and widen your whole body (this involves thinking about lengthening and widening without actually stretching or changing body position in space). As a start, you can try the classical verbal formula used in Alexander Technique**: “let the neck be free so that the head can go forward and up so that the back can lengthen and widen”. Similar to the choice of images in the mental imagery, the choice of words in the verbal self-direction is important for its effectiveness.
And finally, realize that relaxation does not equal collapse. Most of the methods of relaxation described above are practiced in a static (laying on the back or seated) position and great for gaining an initial insight into the feel and the process of muscle release, but relaxation during dynamic movement requires us to deal with gravity and inertia. Quite often, when told to relax during continuous movement in the upright position, we collapse and break down our posture, letting our body become floppy and limp like a wilted flower. This is not the kind of relaxation we want! The essential aspect of relaxation during tai chi form is maintaining a sense of expansion (very often it is called “extension” by sport, fitness and dance instructors). What seems to work for me personally is trying to release muscle tension on the (diaphragmatic) outbreath, while simultaneously giving myself mental directions to lengthen and expand without actively engaging any skeletal musculature. Once a mental image of the desired movement (what’s called a “motor engram”) is created in your mind, your central nervous system will find the most efficient (both effective and economical) way of accomplishing it, provided you do not interfere with the process by tensing up or actively “doing” it.*** In other words, the relaxation we are trying to achieve in tai chi practice is not passive, lifeless and feeble, but mindful, energetic and alive. It is part of a larger Taoist concept of wu-wei. To quote Edward Slingerland, professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia:
Wu-wei literally translates as “no trying” or “no doing,” but it’s not at all about dull inaction. In fact, it refers to the dynamic, effortless, and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective. People in wu-wei feel as if they are doing nothing, while at the same time they might be creating a brilliant work of art, smoothly negotiating a complex social situation, or even bringing the entire world into harmonious order. ****
By regularly practicing the above-described sequence of (1) recognizing the muscle tension when it arises in my body, (2) inhibiting and/or releasing the tension, and (3) triggering the efficient and natural movement patterns by using mental imagery, I hope to get rid of the pesky backache, improve my tai chi practice and the overall physical and mental performance. I will keep you posted on my progress and would be curious to hear about the methods for releasing muscle tension that worked well for you in and outside of tai chi practice.
* Note that some amount of myofascial tone (residual contraction of muscle and fascia, controlled by spinal cord reflexes) is normal and necessary to counteract gravity and maintain upright posture; the problem starts when this tone develops into continuous excessive tension, often asymmetric, of the muscles unnecessary for the task at hand or for maintenance of resting position.
** The Alexander Technique (http://www.alexandertechnique.com) requires dedicated practice and willpower to learn, but once you get the first positive results, it is a very rewarding experience and an effective way of gaining more control over your physical and mental well-being. For some practical tips on AT, check out this blog http://www.freeyourneck.com/blog/alexander-technique-weekly-tip-33/
*** This is, of course, an oversimplification, but discussing the neurophysiology of motor behavior is beyond the scope of this post. You can learn more about mental imagery and how it is used in attaining better motor efficiency by reading about Franklin Method
**** Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland
Maria Popova, one of my favorite bloggers, wrote a beautiful review of this book in her blog called Brainpickings