Usually translated as “relax”, fàng sōng 放松 (sometimes just “sōng”) are probably two of the words that Tai Chi instructors the world over utter most frequently while teaching. That is because we cannot do Tai Chi without fàng sōng; and the more our ability to fàng sōng develops, the more our Tai Chi improves.
Unfortunately, in the West ‘relaxing’ often has connotations of slouching, vegging out in front of the telly, or just doin’ nothin’ – things with which the “sōng” we aim for in Tai Chi has nothing to do.
So when we try to relax when we practise, we might be better off thinking in terms of “loosening up” or, better still, “letting go”.
This letting go – a kind of relaxed awareness – is to take place on three different levels: the body, the heart (not the organ, but rather what we mean when we say that someone has ‘a big heart’ or that we did something ‘with all our heart’), and the mind.
The physical plane itself has different levels: the big surface muscles, then the smaller muscles deeper inside, and then also the connective tissues (the fasciae), tendons, etc. The loosening up exercises that we usually do at the start of a Tai Chi class can help us to relax physically … if they are done mindfully. Indeed, nothing that is done mechanically has significance. When doing those exercises, we listen to our body; we are aware of the feelings, the sensations, and of any tension that we may experience. Likewise, between two exercises, we take the time to pause and again listen to our body.
On the heart level, we learn to let go of our emotions. This certainly does not mean that we need to turn into stone – again, it is essentially a question of awareness. Before I start to practise, if I am aware that I am angry, excited or sad about something, then I can choose to do something about it. For example, I could simply decide that this is probably not a good time to practise – nothing wrong with that. Alternatively, I might choose some other preliminary exercises to help me calm down. In my experience, spending some time in one of the “Zhan zhuang” postures, or in the “Wuji” position can be very effective in this respect.
Finally, on the level of the mind, we learn to ’empty our mind’ by letting go of our thoughts. This, of course, is easier said than done. Here too, if we start from awareness, we can recognise that our mind is indeed a “monkey mind’, ceaselessly jumping from one thought to another, endlessly chattering. Simply recognising this is in itself a big step forward. The worst thing we can do is probably to allow ourselves to get upset because of our monkey mind. Then, different meditative techniques will help different people. Many people find it helpful to “follow their breath”: whenever a distracting thought occurs, just go back to your breath. Inhale, exhale; inhale, exhale. Be one with your breath; if you are in the middle of a Tai Chi movement, be one with the movement, focus on feeling your push, or your pull, or your stretch.
Remember that your mind is that deep blue sky in its perfect stillness; and your thoughts are like clouds drifting past; don’t cling to them. When you are aware of one of those clouds, just accept it, and let it drift away …