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Stretching is vital
'Stretching' covers a wide range of approaches. A good tai chi class should offer a varied and versatile selection of stretching methods.
Vary the stretch
Some stretches are achieved through the standard qigong exercises and these are a good beginning. However, a number of supplementary stretches are recommended:
• Stretches & joint work
• Psoas exercises
• Leg stretches
• Constructive rest
When adults fail to stretch, their bodies become stooped as the muscles shorten. Lower back problems arise from sitting too much. There is a general decline in suppleness, flexibility and mobility.
Exercise with care
People who do a lot of body building and gym machines usually fail to stretch enough. Their muscles remain over-contracted and become chronically tense.
This reduces the length of the muscles and limits their functionality.
Stretching whilst tense
The problem with trying to stretch whilst tense is that the muscles are contracted throughout. They cannot reasonably relax and lengthen.
Instead of stretching the soft tissues, the individual puts strain on the joints. Pulling/separating the joints is clearly not healthy.
Start and finish
It is very important for tai chi students to stretch at the beginning and the end of their daily training routine. The time spent stretching is worthwhile and therapeutic.
Distinguishing between forcing & releasing
Tai chi does not advocate forcing a stretch. Students are required to relax the muscles and allow them to soften. Gravity can be used to encourage release and a safe stretch.
The muscles lengthen naturally.
When standing we should have a sensation of being more in our heels than the front of the foot. However, there should be no tendency to tighten the toes or lift them off the floor. Let the toes lie freely and allow the whole foot to 'soften'. Let the weight go down 'into' the floor so your feel grounded. This gives a firm base from which to think of lengthening upwards. Free your ankles so there is a little sway available to help discover upright balance. In order to enjoy standing without strain we should never get fixed in position.
Stretching must be undertaken as a distinct, focussed activity. You must not over-stretch when performing weight-bearing actions.
A strongly stretched muscle can reduce the mobility of the joints, affect range, upset balance and inhibit correct skeletal alignment. If you cannot operate within your natural range, do not reach/stretch.
Instead, step closer.
In tai chi, the body maintains a rounded shape throughout the practice. This is not congruent with extended stretching, where the limbs are often straightened. During tai chi practice:
- the muscles are neither tense nor flaccid
- the spine is naturally upright, without forcing
- the shoulders and elbows are heavy and dropped
- the hips, sacroiliac, groin and ankles are free and relaxed
- the knees are relaxed but not deeply bent
- scapula/shoulders determine how far to stretch
70% of reach
A gentle stretch is achieved by the movement of the body during form. Keep your feet beneath your limbs. Align your body with gravity.
Do not stretch the limbs too far away from the torso; as this will put your balance at risk. We want length-strength rather than over stretching. Maintain the rounded shape.
Form requires the student to move freely and easily. The limbs should have already been stretched when you warmed-up. There is no need to stretch further.
Excessive stretching means needlessly burning energy like crazy; since stretching costs effort. This is not the tai chi way.
During tai chi practice, no action should not cause the skeleton to lose its natural shape or structural integrity.
If you over-stretch your limbs during form practice; you are limiting joint mobility. Your elbows will not be heavy and dropped. This will prevent you from being able to fold with ease.
Without folding you cannot deliver jing. You cannot adapt, change and improvise. You cannot execute chin na with skill.
Heavy elbows are not collapsed elbows. The arms still need to lengthen. The elbows need to feel open and 'buoyant'.
Over-stretching during partner work makes the limbs vulnerable to injury. In chin na, we stretch and twist the limbs adversely to cause damage.
To escape a lock or hold, you must be free to bend and turn the limbs as required. Heavy, buoyant elbows are essential.
During pushing hands you need to maintain central equilibrium. This necessitates a compact framework. Extended stretching will expose you to a counter-attack.
It is very unwise to stretch too far during combat. When fighting, your body must feel as though you are not really doing anything.
This will improve composure and facilitate appropriate 'natural' seeming responses. Strong stretching puts the body in the wrong physical situation for combat.
Stretching in combat can lead to over-commitment if the stretch is too extreme. Sacrifice moves are not used in the internal martial arts. If you want to get closer, step closer.
Keeping your arms within their natural range means that the student must think in three dimensions:
Forwards & backwards
Every movement is a combination of these three dimensions. It has to be. It is the physics: width, height, length. Learn how to move comfortably without over-stretching.
How do yoga and tai chi compare?
Here is a very simple way to explain the difference: in tai chi, you relax to stretch; in yoga, you stretch to relax. Tai chi emphasizes stretching through sophisticated dynamic fluid motions rather than by holding static postures. Yoga tends to use more extreme stretches than tai chi and some postures lock the joints and arch the back, which never happens in tai chi. These poses can be difficult for those with back or joint problems.
Some understanding of anatomy and human biomechanics is useful. There are many excellent books about stretching that can help you to learn more, including:
• The Anatomy Colouring Book
• Body Learning
• Free Yourself From Back Pain
• The Anatomy of Stretching
• Soft Tissue Release
• Meridian Exercises
• The Psoas Book
• Fix Your Feet
6 March 1994
Last updated 16 June 2023