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Chi Kung (qigong) - Should It Be Done with Muscular Tension or Relaxation?

YiJingPalmBig I received an interesting question today in an email. Here it is:

I was watching your training video on the yi jun jin and have some questions for you. Hopefully you can help me out here. When I was taught the the yi jun jin as a stationary palm set( pretty much identical to movements you teach)  I was told to use actual physical tension in the movements. Teacher said that it would build muscle size and endurance, and that if the muscle growth was too much to then do the movements without the physical tension. My Pai lum teacher was completely against weights and the Pai lum version of the yi jun jin ( the Koon Lun Monks form) had no real phsyical tension as well. But my northern shaolin teacher said the monks trained the muscles very hard and as such we should lift weights and train the yi jun jin with physical tension as well. I have researched both ways, and have found no difinitive answer. I would appreciate your thoughts on this if you have the time to answer.

It's true that Shaolin monks often trained Qigong with muscular tension. A friend of mine who teaches Shaolin often teaches the exercises with muscular tension -- the theory being that when you finally relax, chi will flow better. I have a lot of respect for Shaolin kung-fu and its various styles. I have a lot of respect for Shaolin monks. I differ with the idea of muscular tension in chi kung.

Since I don't believe that chi is a scientific reality, I don't think we need to worry much about holding tension so that chi will flow better when we relax.

On the contrary, I believe the biggest benefit of qigong is to teach you to relax, center yourself, and remain calm in any situation, particularly in situations that normally cause people to tense up or panic -- whether it's an argument with your spouse or a sudden burst of anger from your boss.

It's hard to remain calm and centered when you're tensing your muscles, so for that one reason, I believe doing chi kung with muscular tension is not the way to go.

The primary goal of chi kung is to center yourself -- relaxing and calming every muscle in your body as you learn to also center your posture and your stance. You detach and turn your mind inward. You keep part of your mind on your Dan T'ien.

After you learn to do this, your goal is to apply that same detached mind and relaxed, calm, centered state when you face a crisis or a tense situation -- whether someone cuts you off on the highway or someone insults you in school. You keep part of your mind on your Dan T'ien (your "center") as you remain calm. This is what it means to "remain centered."

When you learn to manage your stress your body functions more efficiently, hour health improves, and you can focus on problems much better than when you are not centered and calm. Stress is a killer. Qigong helps you ease stress. Why would you want your muscles to be stressed while doing it?

An interesting thing about qigong -- especially postures such as standing stake, the Hsing-I San Ti stance, Bagua's Dragon stance, and some of the moving exercises -- they strengthen the leg muscles. So you can still relax and build muscle if you do many of the moving exercises (or standing stake).

I also believe strongly in being as healthy and strong as you can be, and that requires cross training -- weight training, plyometrics, cardio (running, jumping rope, etc.). One sport or exercise does NOT and never will do everything for your body that you need.

But the primary goal of Qigong is NOT to build strength. The primary goal is to learn to maintain your balance and your center -- physically and mentally -- at all times. You don't need muscular tension to do that.  

Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing's 2011 U.S. Tour Schedule

Ken-Gullette-Chen-Xiaoxing Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing, the head of tai chi training for the Chen family in Chen Village, will tour the U.S. this spring. Among the cities he'll visit will be Chicago, Phoenix, Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

This is an opportunity to train with a direct descendant of the founder of Tai Chi Chuan, Chen Wangting. The photo here shows me in a private lesson with Chen Xiaoxing a few years ago near San Francisco. Hands-on correction by any good instructor is a good thing -- hands-on correction by a Chen family member is a different level. 

Chen Xiaoxing is the younger brother of Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang, the standard-bearer of Chen family Tai Chi for the 19th Generation.

Check out this web page for the dates and locations for his 2011 workshop tour. It includes contact information for the workshop sponsors.