Working with tension

There is always the same request when we practice, at some point people ask me:
‘I understand I have to relax but how do I relax?’

If you hadn’t forgotten how to relax you would just do it, it wouldn't be a problem. I could just tell you: relax. But you forgot how to relax, you even forgot that you were tense in the first place. So you need to start by becoming aware of the tension. The thing is we don't want to do that because it feels so terrible and we don't want to feel it. However, this is how it starts. In order to relax you need to find the tension first, where is it exactly? As people are often not in their body, they are not in the moment, they are somewhere, lost in thought, lost in space. They say: ‘Okay, I relax’. But how do you relax if you're not even there?

Confronting the Reality of the Body

The practice, a Qi Gong form puts you right here and now: BAM. And then you see: ‘Oh my God, what is that? This is so bad!’ There is discomfort, there is pain. You might even come to the point where you feel like: ‘that's not me!’ And this is not you, this is just accumulated waste, accumulated tension. And this is why it has to go. But we have so much difficulty with letting go. It is amazing how people hang on to this. We cling on to what we know, what we find familiar, even if it is painful. You will not believe me, but we do.

Therefore first, when we start to practice, we become aware of the tension. This in itself is the work: just feel the tension, feel how it disturbs you, feel how it takes space, feel how it doesn't allow you to breathe and to be. Then comes the second thing: you see you got to do something about it.

The Obstacles in Practice

Now, honestly, most people will not show up to do this kind of work. Their subconscious will prevent them from starting the practice, literally, from stepping into the room. They will not fill the enrollment form. They might think they want to come to a workshop but then, on a different level, they don't want to feel all that pain. And remember, we live in the times of well-being and self-care. You have your spa days or whatever you do to feel good and that is fine. But the spa doesn't remove that deep tension. It simply doesn't. If it did, the Daoists would have figured that out. They would have said: ‘Do more spa days. You just need more spa days. You just need more massages’. No. What they have figured out is this practice, which is connected to the deepest layers of yourself. There you find deep tension and deep blockages and that doesn't feel nice. You must be a strange kind of person to think that this is not unpleasant, in fact you would need to be a masochist.

The Process in Practice

In any case, it needs to be done and the work itself, maybe not in the beginning, but with time you might find beauty in it. The transformation is beautiful. The release and relief are beautiful. This is why you have to find the lightness in it. I cannot stress that enough: don't struggle harder, don't work harder, don't fight more- find beauty in your practice.

How to relax in this process? There is no trick, this is work: layer by layer, by layer, you relax a little bit and then you relax a little bit more, a little bit deeper, in time. While practicing, do less. The movement happens of its own accord and continues throughout the body. This is not happening when you want it, not if you do it harder. It happens when you relax more and allow all tissues to resonate. Then there is great relief and great beauty, it might be just a moment, and then again there is more pain and tension, but you just notice it- this is the work you need to do.

The Relationship between Muscles and Tension

People often start by saying: but I can’t relax, I need my muscles to be able to stand, I need them to hold up my arms in the air. Western people believe in muscles. We can clearly see that. They train muscles. The thing is, you need your muscles but you don't need the tension. I don't say: get rid of your muscles. I have muscles. People, when they see somebody doing bodybuilding, they always say: ‘Oh, he has a lot of muscles’. But they don't have one more than you do, we all have exactly the same muscles. You can tense them and then they pop out, they become visible. If you relax they go inside, where they should be. The only difference between you and somebody that body builds is that they have more tension. That is all. 

Therefore, we use muscles when we do Qi Gong: you stand there because of your muscles. But you want to get rid of tension because, as you will soon experience in practice, the tension doesn't help you to stand there. That's the problem. I had bodybuilders in my class, I had people who do professional sports, they had the hardest time. They were really suffering. The tension doesn't allow you to stand for prolonged periods of time because you get tense. Tense muscles have bad metabolism so they tire out very fast.

A different approach to Building the Body

We actually work in the other direction: by opening up and relaxing you lengthen the muscles. There is a saying in Chinese and in the arts: 'Long muscles, long life'. There are many aspects to it: there is an image of a crane which is a symbol of long life, as it has long legs and a long neck. There is a way of measurement, where one more inch of muscle equals one year of life. This is what we are interested in.

It is not that we don't train muscles, we just train them in another way: in their ability to relax, to open and to lengthen. That's why you have to apply a totally different approach to these exercises. Not: 'I have to tense up more to stand there longer!'. Then your face gets red and you become more and more ugly. You need to see that through that practice you become more beautiful. The heart, Shen- what we call the quality of the heart, has to be developed. In Chinese medicine the heart itself is Xin, that is an organ. The quality of the heart is described as Shen, the spirit. Shen is seen in the face. It shows in the face, in how it appears to the others- not the face itself. There are ugly people and there are beautiful people, that doesn't change. But the expression, even if you are ugly, when you express Shen, is sheer beauty.

This is the wonder of Qi Gong, the work of transformation. We don’t train the physical body, the muscle body, the meat body. When we practice we are saturating the body with Qi. This is why we need to relax: the physical needs to go away and it should be replaced by Qi. This way we make something that is not conscious conscious, we turn something from physical into Qi, we turn something from being numb into being awake- and the beauty appears. This is why we practice and why this work needs to be done.

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Ron Timm Qi Gong Tai Chi Still Power