Fang Song 放松 -To relaxe and loosen up the mind and body
Fang Song and the internal work of Taiji Quan
By Fabian Cretton, October 2015.
This text is a translation and adaptation of the original text written by Master Yang Cheng Long in December 1999.
1) What is Fang Song
To understand correctly Fang Song, one can start with the concept of “to rest” in everyday life. Although it is not a specific action, it is a very important concept for everyone’s life. For stressed workers, to rest is usually to be off work for another activity like listening to music, watch TV, take a vacation, have fun or sleep. We cannot deny that this kind of rest plays a very big role. But these activities are not the optimal rest or relaxation. In line with scientific understanding, Fang Song is to temporarily stop the train of thought, and use only one thought to relax simultaneously all body's tissues (all joints, muscles, etc.). Only the simultaneous combination of these two states can realize the true Fang Song of Taiji Quan.
2) For what reasons is Fang Song essential for the internal work of Taiji Quan?
Fang Song should not be confused with “lax, flask”. When one is asleep, our body is “lax”, but it is not real Fang Song. The Fang Song of Taiji Quan is obtained by temporarily stopping thinking to enter a state where we use as little force as possible to achieve the highest level of relaxation, softness (to seem to have no skeleton hardness), but also sensitivity and agility.
The highest level in Taiji Quan is a state of extreme lightness and sensitivity, a state of mental and physical emptiness: the Empty/Nothing (空无所有kōng wú suǒyǒu). This state of extreme lightness and agility requires the highest degree of Fang Song. Only by using strong body consciousness (意识yìshí) can we start to use little force, and then train to use less and less force, to be as much relaxed as possible. Finally, as for any learning process, this ability becomes unconscious and we no more need any thought to enter this state, we can be effortlessly into the Empty/Nothing. It is written in the boxing manual: “To release energy, one must be totally relaxed and calm, and pay attention to only one thing.” This really means totally relaxed, without a trace of tension. The slightest tension in the partially relaxed body prevents it from entering the state of Empty/Nothing. Yet it is only in this internal state that one can achieve the “to conquer all” of internal martial arts.
3) Fang Song improves the speed and power. Fang Song is stretching in relaxation (舒展shūzhǎn)
One could make fun of martial efficiency when being completely relaxe: can there still be power ? The speed and striking power develop from the change of the muscles state, from their relaxation to their contraction. Contraction capacity is determined by the relaxation capability. Therefore contraction capacity is greatly increased if we improve relaxation capacity, and so will be the speed and power.
4) How to know the nature of Fang Song in Taiji Quan ?
We must here begin with the concept of “light and agile.” By practicing the form, it is necessary to develop a deep feeling of lightness and agility. One way to achieve this is to use the air resistance. When moving the hands and arms, or even the body, we can develop the feeling of air friction. Thus, even the practice of Taiji Quan solo form improves our ability of "lightness" on the point of contact with an opponent during the martial exchange, and even develop our know-how to transform energy (dissolve the force that the opponent tries to emit on us).
The first sentence of Taiji Quan Lun, attributed to Zhang San Feng, clearly says: “Once in motion each body part is light and agile”. It is a fundamental standard for the practice of Taiji Quan. Starting with “light and agile”, one can create the state of Fang Song. Be careful not to go astray and get lost in the techniques of Taiji Quan (as Peng/Lu/Ji/An, or too technical two person’s work with the Dalu, the Tuishou, etc.). Similarly, other martial arts develop great skill, but give importance to brute force and technical agility, rather than light and minutely detailed agility. Lightness and agility are the fundamental points of Taiji Quan. And it is only from the mind and consciousness that one can develop this feeling and this state of sensitivity.
If one moves away from the lightness and agility, it is not possible to study well Taiji Quan.
5) Taiji Quan is one of the best martial art to train the inner work.
Taiji Quan is not a demonstrative training. This is not an external skill (such as arms or body techniques, or flexibility), but rather an internal work that gives importance to the spirit (精神jīngshén), consciousness (意识yìshí) and the internal energy (内气nèiqì), all three applied on the whole body. It does not favor the movement itself, but the essence of the movement. We thus develop a movement of high quality, because it is unified and harmonized throughout the whole body, so to reach the Tao (itself a symbol of unity: the One). Focus on content and minimize the appearance, it is knowledge of profound and abstract things. Move slowly and without strength, calmly and with a single thought, simply and unadorned, but inside things change in a thousand ways and no one can understand just by looking. If people watching applaud and cheer, there is a good chance that inner work is not very thorough, in favor of the more external work (the movement itself, flexibility, technique, etc.).
The book “Songs of body functions” (周身 大用 歌) says: “Firstly the heart is agile and the mind is quiet, consequently we are naturally sensitive and agile. Secondly Qi circulates throughout the body; it must be continuous and uninterrupted. Thirdly the head is stable and you have to learn from all the world's heroes (the great masters).” This book clearly describes that during the practice of Taiji Quan, the mind is concentrated, breathing is quiet and the top of the head as if suspended in the air. These ideas are relatively well known. But also, and this is much less understood even today, we must give importance to the unity of thought and movement (consciousness, Yi, reaches all parts of the body, and thus everything moves or nothing moves: Qi circulates throughout the whole body), uniformity and harmony of thought and movement (consciousness is uniformly distributed throughout the body so that all the joints move at the same speed and same amplitude at the same time: the Qi circulates throughout the body in a harmonious and balanced way), this state is maintained without interruption (the Yi maintains this state over time, non-stop, no matter if there are external factors or if we practice with a partner). Note that unlike Fang Song, these elements can be seen, and it is clear that they are so rarely trained. These features show that Taiji Quan trains thoroughly the mind, Qi, tendons, bones, skin, and all tissues. For the internal work it is one of the best martial arts.
6) Specifical method to train Fang Song
Choose a quiet place, clean, dry, protected from the wind. Indoor is suitable too. Be quiet, comfortable (comfortable clothing), stand still, eyes closed or half closed, breath naturally, the whole body relaxed as much as possible. Then, in calmness, use a single thought to guide the conscience from the crown of the head (Baihui) downward and relax gradually all muscles of the body: face, neck, shoulders, arms and forearms, palms, fingers, chest, back, ribs, waist, abdomen, buttocks, thighs, calves, toes, soles. Slowly, one by one, completely relaxed, to the point Yongquan (This is a sample list, not comprehensive, and the more one practice, the more one is able to go into details with a real feeling of each part of the body). We are then in a state where we maintain the posture using as few force as possible.
This same method, applied here above at the muscles level, is then also used to relax at the organs level, connective tissue and meridians, or bones. This is done in the same manner, working minutely from BaiHui to YongQuan for each type of tissue.
This is a special way of training, being extremely quiet, without motion (not during the practice of Taiji Quan form).
7) Internal work during the practice of the form
When training Taiji Quan, it is very tempting to focus on how to perform the movement, attack and defense actions, or just feel good and calm, rather relaxed. In two people’s training, we can focus on the partner and on the direction of energies and their use. But these approaches lack the focus on one’s own innerself, the emptiness and ability of the internal energies of Taiji Quan. To pay attention only to exchanged energies between partners or external movements, that is to miss the internal work. Finally, we do not practice optimally, and practice becomes more like a gym or a relatively exernal martial art. This way of practicing, eventhough it already allows to obtain very interesting benefits, does not really touch the heart of Taiji Quan. It is a pity.
Laozi said in the DaoDeJing: “the sky unifies and is clear, the earth unifies and is calm”. Taiji Quan contains a lot of aspects, but there is a fundamental importance of unity, returning to Tao, returning to the character “one” in Chinese: 一. To do so you have to carefully unify the movement. He also said, “all things on earth are born from the being, and the being is born from the non-being, finally there is the return to Empty/Nothing”. It is easy to train the full (being, substancial), this is what we do if we remain at the level of the movement, technique, a well “structured” posture, relaxing in search of heaviness (one seems hard to be moved), or training a peng rather “full” but still pretty coarse. How to effectively train the empty (non-being, insubstancial) is still little understood. To train the empty we must improve the essence of the movement (our motor skills and feelings) and start by understanding the lightness and agility, moving with an extremely well harmonized and distributed gesture (speed and amplitude), highly unified (everything moves or nothing), deeply relaxed and grounded (if one relax, Qi does sink, one is rooted). We can then reach a high level of lightness and sensitivity, develop a careful coordination, which will develop deep links between the mind and body as well as links between all parts of the body. It is then possible to develop FangSong and relax with a single thought the whole body, to eventually enter the Empty/Nothing. We are not talking here about nice words or a pictorial description, but a real know-how that we can feel when we put our hands on a master of that inner work.
Practically, since humans can consciously think to only one thing at a time, we practice the form one time thinking about lightness, another time thinking about unity, yet another time for uniformity, and so on. By training this way consistently and patiently, it is inevitable to get great results.
8) To study well Taiji Quan, we must strengthen our own will
Being healthy, we can live fully. This is difficult when are ill or disturbed by adverse events. We also know that stress, this modern-day plague, has a great impact on our health. People who regularly practice Taiji Quan feel relaxation and well-being during the form, but also after the training. If we practice often, this becomes a lasting and deep feeling. The benefits of such a practice, especially to restore inner peace (which can be measured by physiological effects that are the opposite to those induced by stress), have been proven scientifically. In addition to the pleasure of practice this beneficial result is worth maintaining our commitment to train properly. Of course life is complex, variable, and many factors that we cannot influence can disrupt our workout plan or downright disrupt our health. This is normal, so do not worry about it, the important thing is to do our best to put all the chances on our side.
9) Where there is a will, there is success. The key is to persevere.
The training process of Taiji Quan is endless, despite getting older, and the fruits are harvested over a lifetime of practice. But it is true that the training may seem unattractive, dull and painful, we may even feel very lonely in this personal and individual work based on the calm. The Poet LouYou from the Song Dynasty said “The scent of plum blossoms comes from the extreme cold (when the warmth of spring takes over from the harsh winter), the double-edged sword is sharpened on a grindstone.” To be patient, to endure the difficulties of the training, to persevere, all these elements also contribute to the strengthening of our will and of our body. It is really a trial for every person who trains Taiji Quan, but the answer is rich and generous. When winter has arrived, is spring still far? If we insist in the right direction, we will for sure reach our goal.
 Please refer for instance to “The Relaxation Response” from Dr. Herbert Benson, which first publication dates back to 1975. See my blogpost about that (in french).