Physical and mental relaxation is essential to all Art of Chi techniques. This is true whether one is standing, seated or supine. It applies to Chi manipulation techniques as well as to the practices of Qigong or Tai Ji Chuan. Among the tools used to bring about relaxation, the practice of deep relaxation constitutes a most remarkable gem.
Can it be that the secret to life is comfort and well-being? Yes, Life! The force that surges forth to oppose death. Life is both fragile and powerful, as evident at the birth of a new being. The words “comfort” and “ease” are usually associated with social success and yet also with laziness and emptiness. These words take on a whole new meaning when we talk about deep relaxation. But first let’s clarify: deep relaxation does not simply mean being calm. Many things may make us feel calm (Mozart, a martini, a bath, sports, sex) and we rely on them for that. However, we are searching for something different here. We want to release ourselves completely from our dependence on exterior objects and to just simply “be.”
A minimum of comfort for body and mind is essential. Use an exercise mat that’s neither too small, too firm, or too soft. Lie on your back, use a cover to keep warm, and place a cushion under your knees if you are prone to backache. The room should be quiet with no risk of interruption—at last, alone! Take a breath, exhale deeply, and try to relax. Your first reflex will be to move an arm, a hand, a leg, your head… These movements will allow you to arrange yourself more comfortably.
Unfortunately, your rest is short-lived. It’s not long before you feel compelled to move to avoid a feeling of discomfort that only seems to magnify with time. These adjustments in the body are usually spontaneous and often imperceptible, but deep relaxation calls on us to be still, so we have to remain vigilant. Then what? Is it possible to remain immobile for 90 minutes, 2 hours, or even more without feeling discomfort? Even when I sleep I turn over frequently!
The answer is found within. We cease moving on the outside, but to reach a state of true comfort we travel inside. So let’s begin!
Not Falling Asleep
When muscular relaxation commences, even partially, the spirit may wander off and fall into the realm of sleep. We are accustomed to letting the spirit rove when the body rests. The spirit has a hard time distinguishing the border between watchfulness and sleep; the inner voice pursues its monologue without noticing the transition. Following a relaxation class many people claim they did not fall asleep despite the fact their snores bothered others in the class. So once again, let’s redouble our efforts, be vigilant, and learn to observe our mental state.
In fact, we are going to put the mind on a leash as if taming an animal. We will assign it the task of observing the body, and its reward will be the experience of well-being. But beware! In asking the mind to observe the body, to scrutinize every detail, and “to feel and not just think,” we are asking a lot of it! Because up to now we have trained our mind to ignore the body and now we are asking it to do the reverse. The mind will try to kick us off course! But we persevere.
When we want to move forward, we walk; when we want to explain ourselves, we talk; when we are healthy, our muscles understand. So why do they not seem to understand when I ask them to relax? If I want to release my shoulders, for example, it’s like I asked for the moon! It gets to the point where I wonder, in all honesty, if these shoulders actually belong to me, so strongly do they turn a deaf ear! We spent years learning how to walk and talk, but we have not really learned to let go of “that which enables us to stand, take action, and live in the world”! To release our muscles is to surrender to gravity; but like a child who is afraid to go to sleep because subconsciously he fears never waking again, we have to go beyond our subconscious fears and learn to distinguish muscular relaxation from that time when we leave life altogether.
To achieve this letting go we first learn to speak to our muscles, to speak within and not to the outside world. It is like learning a new language. When we go on a trip abroad we may at first not understand anything that is said. What to do? First, don’t launch into long tirades; keep it simple. I point at myself and say “Pierre,” and then I point at the chair and say “chair,” etc. And that’s how we make our body understand. So when I say in my mind the word “heavy,” at the same time I direct my attention to the backs of my shoulders (which will naturally sink into the mat more than, say, the back of my neck). To physically feel I merely take notice of my thoughts. This sounds oddly like “I become what I think.” What a great program! And yes, when body and mind understand one another they become friends or even lovers! Of course at first things don’t always go swimmingly. But eventually…
Our contact with the floor is transformed when we release our muscles. We are now on an ideal bed. Our body merges with the floor, like two pieces of a puzzle that fit perfectly together so that an overall image emerges: the mat, the floor, the earth, my body, and I. I can no longer distinguish the borders that separate the pieces. All is one substance, one Chi. This miracle, so natural and even unremarkable in animals, is exceptionally hard for modern humans to achieve. And yet this is true happiness with no other objective. Eventually we should also work with tantien (the center of gravity and the body’s energy center). That will enable our muscles to let go effortlessly, allowing us to attain a state of incomparable comfort.
The relationship between I think, I want, and I am is central to the Art of Chi and the practice of deep relaxation. The same is true for all traditional Far Eastern disciplines like yoga, Zen, Tai Ji Chuan, and of course meditation.
When we put our bodies into deep relaxation our attention becomes extremely focused. The cacophony between body and spirit ceases. A profound harmony between the muscles and the will is established. At this point Chi expresses its full power and we realize what it is. Chi is our vital force, our body, our mind, and our life. When the veil is lifted we see our individual life as Life itself.
The Art of Chi (Qi, life force) encompasses all traditional Far Eastern disciplines insofar as they use techniques like those found in yoga, Zen, acupuncture, meditation, martial arts, calligraphy, etc.
Vlady Stévanovitch (1925–2005) developed a particularly effective method for learning these techniques. His method is distinguished by its absence of reference to any specific cultural or theoretical context.