The first verse of the Tai Chi Classics by Chang San-feng reads,
Once you begin to move, the entire body must be light and limber. Each part of your body should be connected to every other part. (Liao)
The emphasis here is on lightness and connection. While playing Tai Chi, it is possible to move the hand, the arm, the leg, and the foot, but this view can be misleading. If the hand moves, it naturally moves the arm as well. As the arm moves, so too does the shoulder. As the shoulder moves, the torso is affected, and so on. This is obvious in large motions, but remains true in subtle motion as well.
One summary for Tai Chi I’ve used in the past is that, externally, it is the art of dealing with force: yours, your environment’s, or someone else’s. Sometimes this force is the weight of your body on a stair, and sometimes it’s a heavy bag in your hand. If any force is applied to your body, it is possible to feel that force in many other parts of your body as well. Of course, you may not feel it in some places. In order to feel (and respond well) to force, you must be soft and light. Parts of the body that are tense or hard have lost their spring and cannot transfer energy very well. Force that enters those areas can become stuck. Worse, without a full connection, that stuck force can stagnate and spread the tension to other parts of the body.
What does this mean in practical terms? If your hand is tense, your whole body will carry some of that tension as well. If you make a hard fist, the pressure of that contraction will also be evident in your arm, in your shoulder, and maybe your face and neck. Perhaps more dangerous, when allowed to remain, that contraction can appear in your breathing. Similarly, if your breath is tight and shallow, your movement will never be completely relaxed. This tells us that we need to check in with all the parts of our body regularly (during a Tai Chi form or anytime, really) and try to relax any tension we find in order to help release tension in other places as well.
That said, if my body is not well connected, then relaxing my face may not have much of an effect on a my tight lower back, but it’s likely to have an effect on my neck and shoulders. You never know where you’ll find a connection; some may surprise you. Try it and find out!
So how do we improve connection? Another translation of this classic reads,
In motion the whole body should be light and agile,
with all parts of the body linked as if threaded together. (Scheele)
This gives us another analogy. Imagine a thread pulled taut; if one side is pulled, the other side moves also. This is true for either side of the thread. The body is like this thread. If the thread hangs slack or is tangled, pulling on one side will still affect the other side, but not immediately and not evenly. On the other hand, if the thread is too tense, a single pull will cause it to snap.
To best manage the daily forces that apply to your body (carrying, lifting, pushing, pulling, etc.) you should try to find a level of extension and fullness in your body that removes the slack without creating additional tension. In this way, when the dresser you are pushing suddenly gets stuck, you won’t fall over or wrench your shoulder. Even while walking, it can be helpful to feel and respond to the pressure and feelings you get from your foot in your whole body.
So remember: the body is one piece. You can consider its elements as separate for convenience, but when one part is affected by force or discomfort, so too will some other part. Relax one part, you’ll probably find relaxation everywhere.
1. Liao, Waysun (1977,1990). T’ai Chi Classics. Boston: Shambhala Publications. pp. VIII. ISBN 0-87773-531-X.
2. Scheele, Lee N. (2009). T’AI CHI CH’UAN CLASSICS. Retrieved from http://www.scheele.org/lee/classics.html