The ancient pine stands tall,
Branches laden with falling snow in winter’s moonlight
One more flake falls.
A limbs bows low, releasing its icy burden to the waiting earth,
Then springs back, sung, ready to catch more.
– Li Long-dao, 1948
The principles of Taijiquan are not things or specific actions; they are internal feelings and awareness resulting from a very personal process of experiential learning. One of the more difficult but essential principles to grasp in Taijiquan practice, especially for Westerners, is that of Song (松) often erroneously refereed to as relaxation and sinking of the body. Ask most Taijiquan players what the word means and they will say that it means to relax, sink, or get loose when you do the form. You can see students by the hundreds acting like, limp dish rags, flopping loosely about while flailing their hands and arms in slow motion as though their bones had dissolved away.
A few misguided individuals believe that in some mysterious way their Qi (internal breath) will begin to move their body independently of muscular or mental action. A well known Chinese instructor once said to me, “I have achieved a state in my Taijiquan that, when I practice, my muscles no longer move my body. I am so loose and relaxed that my Qi moves me instead!” He even wrote this in an article in a prominent martial arts publication. Let us understand reality from the beginning. Movement of your physical body without mentally and/or neurologically activating muscular contractions is a physiological impossibility. You simply cannot move without flexing a muscle and every time you flex a muscle to walk, stand, sit, punch, kick, chew food, talk, or rise your arms then your mind / brain and nervous system are involved.
Understanding the proper role played by balancing muscular contraction (tension) with muscular release (relaxation) in Taijiquan practice is sadly neglected for many devotees of Taijiquan. I am not sure exactly where these ideas of becoming limp as a dish rag or Qi moving the body without the help of the external skeletal muscles began. They certainly do not seem to be in harmony with the Taijiquan classics. The masters who wrote the definitive literature on Taijiquan all say that it is the mind and not the Qi that moves the body.
Wu Yu-Seong in his manuals on the elucidation of the thirteen kinetic movements of Wu style Taijiquan said, “Essentially everything in Taijiquan depends solely on the mind’s power and not on external appearances.”
Wang Tsong-yueh, a famous Taijiquan master reputed to have written the Taijiquan Lun (Theory of Taiji Boxing), wrote, “The mind leads and the body follows then the Qi goes forward, the abdomen should relax, enabling the Qi to permeate the bones.”
What is Song?
Let’s examine the concept of Song from a practical perspective. The word Song in the Chinese dictionary has numerous definitions. The first of which is surprisingly enough: A pine tree. The second definition refers to a state in which a thing becomes relaxed, without excess tension. Remember this “without excess tension” It does not say without any tension. The Chinese written language is comprised of symbols that do not always indicate precise concrete things as in English. Chinese characters often have layers of meaning representing feelings and ideas.
At first glance it is not so easy to see what a pine tree has to do with being relaxed, yet this is exactly the image that conveys the concept of what true Song is all about. The doggerel about the ancient pine and the snow by my teacher Li, Long-tao at the opening of this article was the way he explained Song to me as a young boy. The pine is an ancient Daoist symbol of longevity and eternal youth because the tree remains green and flexible no matter what the season. Its roots are deep and strong and the limbs are long and can support great weight. As in the poem, when an outside force is applied to the limbs, they do not resist or become rigid. The limb bows slightly under the weight of the snow, allowing the weighty mass to slide free. The pine tree is not limp or flaccid. It has just the right balance of firm, flexible resistance without rigidity to sustain itself though all types of weather. It is in this same way that I believe we should view the concept of Song in Taijiquan.
Long Road to Nowhere
The later Master Jou, Tsung Hwa, a highly regarded author and teacher of Taijiquan from New York, told me, “Many people practice their Taijiquan form for years and never achieve true success. . . If you continue to depend only on your teacher, or merely try to reproduce, copy, and preserve a particular teacher’s approach, you will not reach your highest potential.”
My teacher Li, Long-dao shared with me, “The form or style is not important. What is important is what the mind does during the movement and that the body alignments are correct for the specific movements intended purpose.” I feel in the case of Song, you must carefully examine in slow motion each action you make; feeling the muscles flexing, stretching, and relaxing harmoniously.
When you consciously work to slowly and deliberately control the actions of your body in sequence, you learn to relax the muscles not needed in a specific action. As this happens your autonomic nervous system will dilate blood vessels activated though your mental desire to “feel”. The nerves will become more sensitive and you will experience the sensations many call Qi flow. This feeling of Qi is the end result of a proper release of musculoskeletal tension. The goal is to learn to feel all of this happening and to gain control over your body in action.
Song training has two major parts. Mind/body coordination and rooting skills. In the beginning we embark upon a process of consciously finding and relieving unintentional tension in the body in order to facilitate more freedom of movement and articulation of the joint structures. In short, becoming aware of the unnecessary and excessive tonus in our flexors and extensors and letting go of any tension that is unnecessary. Once we can do this we can let the body “settle” in with gravity and develop a dynamic stability called rooting energy.
We must not collapse to learn Song. When correct kinetic equilibrium is achieved, the antagonistic muscles will be releasing tension in a balanced, dynamic action with the flexors of the protagonist muscles. There will be achieving a true Taijiquan flow state in the action. The relaxing muscles will act like yin flowing smoothly in harmony with the flexing muscles, yang; just as in the Chinese philosophical principle of the Taiji symbolism.
This is no small feat, because Taijiquan is a dynamic and moving exercise and the muscles are constantly changing, relaxing, stretching, and flexing. This is one of the reasons for doing the form slowly. You have the time to use your mind to scan the body for areas where you are holding muscles (not used in the present action) that contain non-essential tension and to release it. To attain Song the mind must be disciplined. It is necessary to be fully present in the now moment. To be aware of each and every action you are making as you do the form. There must be, especially for the beginner, no distracting thoughts. No thoughts that bring on anxiety or tension.
Rooting and Song
Yang Cheng-Fu says, “To sink Chen (沉) sink is the second step of Song. Originally Song and Chen were merged in one concept. To sink means to become stable by emptying strength from the upper torso into your legs. If you remain stiff in the upper body, your body will float and you can be easily toppled.” This alludes to the calligraphic concept of Song being a pine. The pine is tall and straight. Most of its weight is in the lower trunk and the enormous roots are sunk deeply into the earth.
Sink (Chen) does not mean pressing downward. Sink is more a psychophysical concept. Standing straight like the pine tree and a letting go of tension (Song) in the upper body, so that weight is carried directly over the center of gravity line located in the pelvis. When you do this the body naturally sinks.
Sinking is not compressing. Your spine should lift upward from the pelvis with the lower torso feeling as if sinking. Lifting the head and dropping the pelvis causes vertebrae and joints to begin opening stretching the spine. If you stretch the spine as you “sink”, you will increase spinal elasticity and strength, resulting in a suppler waist and flexible back. The result of true Song skill training is not limp or slack. Real Song skill imparts the flexibility found in a good piece of spring steel or the sinuous body of a large serpent. It is not the wimpy image of a loose, flaccid silken rope that so many practitioners seem to try to emulate. Creating Song is a state of mind feeling and controlling the body.