Strong or tense?

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A big impediment

The largest impediment faced by a student of tai chi is their own perception of strength. Invariably, the student is convinced that their physical experience of strength is strength.
Quite often they are wrong. What they are feeling is not strength at all. It is tension.


If your muscles are working optimally, they should move your body around without there being any sense of work taking place. Everything will feel comfortable, easy and smooth.
When you are chronically over-working your muscles, this is not the case at all. You exert constantly.
You apply vast amounts of energy to the performance of simplistic tasks that require almost no energy to accomplish

You don't want to be fighting biceps against biceps, the best techniques are the ones that the opponent gives you.

(Geoff Thompson)


Tense muscles are in fact weak muscles. They are not healthy, balanced and toned. They are over-working and straining. Your nervous system is sending and receiving faulty information from the muscles.
This is not good for your tai chi.


People are often not quite as fit as they may imagine.
This fact might not seem important in tai chi because a lot of the work is slow, but the truth is that you cannot reasonably hope to defend yourself if you are out of shape.
Stamina and endurance cannot be ignored.


The form is more about psychological fitness than physical, the partner work is another matter entirely. Most of the martial drills are vigorous, cardiovascular workouts. You need to be in good condition.


When people are tense is it often because they are unfit. Instead of feeling comfortable, relaxed and easy, the body is awkward, jumpy and under pressure. The only way out of this situation is to exercise.
Try committing to a daily tai chi workout. If you tire easily in class, you may want to consider walking more and building up your strength.

The source

Most people's arms are extremely tense and they don't even realise it. Why? Why are people's arms tense?
Your hand is the primary tool employed by the mind for the exploration of reality. You touch, you hold, you press, you pull, you manipulate most things using your hands.
Jacob Bronowski wrote "The hand is the cutting edge of the mind." There's your answer. A tense arm is the by-product of a mind that is not in any way relaxed and at ease.

Introductory form

When you are initially taught the form, the pattern is exaggerated for your benefit. The movements are deliberately shown in a large, ungainly way, with the arms quite far out from the body.
This is partly to help you 'see' the movements. It also serves to tie the arms into the spine. This is the 'square' form.

How we move conveys energy and youth not how buff we are.

(Anne Elliott)


When training for the higher belts you need to become softer and gentler. Start with form.  Make it soft and relaxed, smooth and slow.
Ensure that you can keep your balance when you step and pay close attention to your shape. Are you upright or leaning, sitting into the hips or bending from the lower spine?


Appropriateness is about the when and the how. Applying all your strength against a stable, rooted, prepared opponent is notsmart. Force against force is not tai chi.
You must learn to be subtle. To be sensitive. To listen. To feel. To yield. To trick your opponent's nervous system.
The application of 13 methods depends upon your ability to apply your strength at the right moment. If you get it right, 4 ounces of pressure will be all you require.


Tensing, forcing, pushing, controlling... these are external attitudes. Tai chi is not about prolonged fighting. Your aim is to avoid conflict, to yield to force and to be adaptive.
Beginners often do not like the sound of this. It sounds weak and vulnerable. It is not macho enough. As soon as you ignore the tai chi principles, you are training incorrectly.


Softness in the body is important. You cannot have a stiff, solid torso and hope to succeed against a more serious attacker. Tai chi teaches the yin body.
You need to be loose, soft, folding. Going with the force, not against it. Find space in your stance. If you become accustomed to finding space, you will find that there is always room to move.

Maintain distance

Standing head-to-head with an attacker is not the tai chi way. You need to maintain distance initially. Move in once you have neutralised the threat.
Skilful, light steps will enable you to glide softly and easily away from a threat without becoming entangled. Silly, stylised steps will simply backfire.
Do not seek to meet strength with strength. Be circumspect.

Whole-body strength

Performed correctly, whole-body strength should feel to come from the entire body, not just an isolated limb. There should be no sense of which muscles are producing the power.
At a later level, the strength should feel to be coming through the body.

If you let go of your muscular strength your body will start relaxing.

(Bruce Frantzis)

Page created 3 March 2000
Last updated 16 June 2023