Four Fundamental Qualities of Tai Chi Movement
by Sifu David Goldstein
The Quality of Song
Song is often translated as “relaxation”, but this does not adequately convey its true meaning. Song is loosening and opening the joints and gently stretching, extending outward.
I don’t mean stretching in the conventional sense. In a normal exercise routine we stretch our muscles, tendons, and connective tissue by pulling the tissue by flexing the opposing muscle group. To stretch the biceps, you flex the triceps muscle, opening the elbow as far as possible. You are powering up one muscle group in order to put tension on the muscle group and its associated connective tissue you wish to stretch. In addition, you are pulling the upper and lower arms together, thus adding pressure to the elbow joint; i.e. bringing the bones in the joint closer and tighter together. If you really want to stretch and lengthen the muscle this is what you may have to do. But Song is a completely different kind of stretching.
By extending and lengthening the target muscles rather than flexing and compressing the opposing muscle group, we lengthen the muscle without the strain on the opposing muscle group or adding pressure to the joint. In fact, the joint is loosened and the gap between the bones of the joint can actually get larger; albeit by a tiny amount. This tiny amount, however, allows synovial fluids and Chi to flow more easily.
We all know that muscles can be flexed; that is they can compress. In this motion the muscle fibers are shortened and bulge. In the case of muscles controlling joint movement the flexing may either close the joint, as in the biceps closing the elbow or open the joint as in flexing the opposing triceps. But muscles can also extend and lengthen. This movement is not as strong or as large a movement as muscle contraction and most people are completely unaware of this motion. If you reach out to grab something off the top shelf, however, you body will be doing muscle extension automatically.
Elaine Summers, the Broadway choreographer and movement expert called this motion Eccentric or Extension Tension. Tai Chi expert and physicist Rober Cuckrow rightly noted that the term “Tension” is not a very good choice from a mechanics point of view. However, Summers describes the motion as the muscles squeezing in and therefore extending or lengthening. This is reminiscent of the motion in bone marrow washing Chi Kung.
Summers used exercises of Eccentric Tension in training dancers to develop what she described as “flexible, panther-like bodies”.
The quality of Song is relaxing and extending the muscles, loosening the joints. Tension is released and Chi flows more easily.
Take the posture just after executing Brush Knee and Strike. The striking hand is in front of you with the wrist about shoulder height, the blocking hand is to your side about waist height. Make sure both wrists are straight or slightly rounded. Without physical effort, imagine your fingers extending, growing longer. Relax, do not force the stretch of your fingers or hands. Pay attention to your finger joints. You should be able to feel the joints relax and open and the Chi begin to flow.
Try this with other postures. Try it with other parts of your body. With Ward Off or Grasp Birds Tail you should feel the Song in your elbow as well as in your hands. Visualize your spine as a string of pearls. Lift your head and feel the spine elongating vertically. The pearls (your vertebrae) separate, and the Chi flows up and down your spine.
When walking, extend your forward foot with Song. Feel the knee joint open. When you take a step do not fall onto your forward foot. If you are stepping forward with your right foot, for example, make sure you are completely stable on your left supporting foot. Then extend out your right foot with Song until your right heal touches the floor. The heal bears no weight and you should be able to pull the heal back without noticeable movement of the body. You right leg should feel relaxed, long, the knee joint open. Now transfer your weight mindfully to the right foot until you are in stance. This is a very important aspect of moving from stance to stance. Always (1) ensure stability on the supporting leg, (2) extend with Song the free leg until it touches the ground, (3) only then move your weight into the leg with intent and control.
When turning, as in stepping to the corners in Fair Maiden at the Shuttles, open your kwa (hip joint) with Song, in a relaxed, no-strain fashion.
Eventually you want to develop this muscle extension quality so you can lightly stretch out and open any joint at any point in the form.
Once you have practiced Song for some time and are comfortable with your ability to relax, extend, and open joints, go back to your practice of Chen, sinking Chi to your Dan Tian. See that you can do both Chen and Song simultaneously.
In the next part of this article we will address the quality of Jing; the quietness of mind.