The purpose of T'ai Chi training, my teacher Michael Ward told us Sunday morning, is to teach us to "relax in the face of adversity."
"Aha," I said to myself. "That's what makes T'ai Chi practice such good self defense training."
Part of relaxation is learning not to tense up at moments of stress. In T'ai Chi class, your body learns this very literally: If you tense up when you're trying to stand on one leg, you wobble; if you stiffen when you're doing push hands, your partner will push you over.
The same thing happens in daily life: If you're calm when a crisis hits, you find that you can do what needs to be done. If you're tense, you may do the wrong thing entirely.
Here's why: When you're relaxed, you can see or feel all the options. When you're tense, you block them off. In T'ai Chi practice, that ability to find options is physical, but the same principle applies to adversity that requires a mental response.
Relaxation is one of those concepts that seems very simple and yet turns out to be complex. When I teach Aikido class, I am always telling students to relax. Sometimes I shake their shoulders, to show them how stiff they're holding themselves. And no matter how much you learn about it, there always seems to be more to learn. (I frequently tell myself to relax, too.)
One of the best things about relaxation is that there are so many ways to learn it. You can work on it while holding a difficult T'ai Chi posture, by practicing push hands, or by learning how to use your center instead of your shoulders to throw your partner in Aikido. But you can also learn it by sitting in meditation or through yoga practice.
The common wisdom about self defense is that it requires mastery of impressive fighting techniques. I used to think that was true, used to think that the value of relaxation was simply that it allowed your muscles to do their work more efficiently and made it possible for a weaker person to handle a stronger one.
But while that's true, relaxation gives you much more than a little physical edge. It opens up the world and shows you all the possibilities. You might find, for example, that you don't need to fight at all.
Learning to relax isn't easy -- relaxation isn't collapsing on the couch after a hard day. It requires devoting time to a practice that shows you how to do it (T'ai Chi, meditation, yoga, etc.). But here's the best thing about relaxation: Anyone can learn it, regardless of physical problems, age, illness, or other limitations. Many of us will never be able to do a flying side kick, but all of us can learn to relax.