Tension and relaxation

Tension is who you think you should be,

Relaxation is who you are.

So they say, and I would agree

And I have practiced being relaxed, and gone deep in that practice.

And yet….

And yet….

Despite knowing, in my body, in my mind

How good relaxation feels,

In my daily life tension still wins.

At work, behind a computer,

Trying to get things done, getting irritated by the little things,

Or worrying, or wondering why it’s just not all done better, or quicker.

My muscles tighten as my mind tightens.

This is the real me in so many moments of my life,

The me with tension.

And to relax requires an effort of will, a decision, a choice.

It’s a choice I fail to make, over and over again.

I’ve just come back from tai chi class

And I feel great

The feeling will carry over into tomorrow

Then it will gradually dissolve back into tension and forgetfulness

Using too much effort, and trying too hard.

One of these days I’ll make a different choice. 

Until then, tension is who I am, relaxation is who I am not allowing myself to be.

Sometimes I wonder, as I practice tai chi, 

Just why I keep going,

What I’m achieving

It is me, coming back to the choice between tension and relaxation.

Learning to choose relaxation in each moment,

So that one day I will truly be able to say

That relaxation is who I am.

A message to my younger self

Driving to work

Past fields and hedges and trees without leaves,

The distant fells of the Lake District,

A milky opalescent dawn sky,

And I feel so happy

And I think, if I could send a message

To my younger self

I would say


I know things don’t feel easy.

But it will all work out in the end.

Take it one step at a time, don’t worry so much.

Life still has its ups and downs,

But the view from here is worth it.’

A walk on Blawith Common

Weather and circumstance have conspired recently to keep my walks short

but today I was out for hours.

And now I am weary, that lovely tiredness of the body;

heavy limbs and aching muscles

thankful for a day outside

in the sun and frost.

Mind relaxed, soul nourished

by the long views of the fells and the sea,

clear blue skies and the orange glow of bracken.

Lungs full of fresh air,

I’ll sleep well tonight.

Air like water

Doing tai chi while imagining the air is like water, as if you are doing tai chi under water, is a way of deepening relaxation.  

Imagining, as I move, that the air feels like water.

My arms float, 

My body is supported.

If I concentrate, I can feel the air like water against my back.

My legs; heavy.

Movement becomes more deliberate,

The sense of the air like water surrounding me

Filling in behind me as I move forward.

I become aware of all of the surfaces of my arm as it moves into posture,

The movement of my arm through space.

I try to expand my awareness to my whole body,

To feel the air like water touching every part of me,

Don’t quite get there,

Still sensing my body as individual parts; hand, arm, leg, back.

This is my practice today;

Air like water.

Right here, right now

This year, I want to spend more time in my body 

And less time in my head.

Listening, relaxing, softening

Being here now,

In this present moment,

Breaking the habit of a lifetime.

Happy New Year.


Studying tai chi

‘First you must learn the principle, then cultivate it. Become soft and you will be less fearful, which will make you softer still, and then fearless. This is real, a person can achieve this’. Professor Cheng Man-ching

I am not a natural at tai chi.

Tai chi is all about being relaxed, soft, centred, body aligned, energy flowing freely.

When I started tai chi, relaxation definitely wasn’t my way of being. I was an anxious child, an introvert who found the world could be a daunting place. By my early twenties, I appeared to be functioning OK on the outside, but I’d stopped being aware of my body, tension was my habitual way of being. Eventually my body rebelled against the straightjacket it was in, and I started having panic attacks. Desperate for some relief, I decided to try out a tai chi class.

At the time, I was fairly sceptical about it all. A friend who had been to a few classes told me that she could feel a force between her hands – ‘chi’. I wasn’t convinced. But I was interested in martial arts, having done a couple of years of tae kwon do, and I’d been reading about zen buddhism and meditation, tried sitting meditation once or twice but my mind raced and I just felt more anxious. I’d been to a yoga class but that wasn’t for me. And I had to do something to help me relax.

So, at that first tai chi class, the teacher walked round the class and stopped behind me and said ‘relax your shoulders. Let them drop.’ I, having tuned out from my body, had no idea that my shoulders were perpetually raised and hunched. I let them drop. What a relief! I also remember having to stand for a while in the ‘bear’ posture, with my arms held out at shoulder height as if they were around a barrel. Focusing on the tension in my arms, shoulders and belly, and letting it go. Wonderful. And chi gung, moving my arms in time with my breath, breathing from the belly. My mind quietened down, distracted by the movements I was performing. In that first class, I certainly didn’t feel any force between my hands, but I did feel so much better afterwards.

The relaxation didn’t last long, the old tensions and habitual way of holding myself returned almost immediately. But now I knew there was a way out. I was hooked.

I went to those classes for about 6 months, and during that time I noticed that whenever I had a panic attack, my stomach muscles were completely tense, and I was not breathing from my belly. They were so tense that I couldn’t get them to relax. During the day they’d been getting tenser and tenser and then seemingly from nowhere, a panic attack.

At this time I moved to another part of the country to try and find a job, did voluntary work for a while. Then I did get the job that I wanted. The panic attacks continued, still horrible to experience but I was better at calming myself down, thanks to those tai chi lessons. I didn’t find another class for several years. But from time to time I’d do the exercises, particularly when I was feeling stressed.

And then I started regular classes again, and over the years I became aware of more and more bits of my body that were tense, uncoordinated, unaligned, disconnected. I still didn’t feel any magical chi between my hands, but after every class, every session of practice on my own, I felt so much better.

I’ve been practicing, on and off, for nearly 25 years. Yet still I discover tension in my body, like the layers of an onion, one layer of tension peels away only to discover another underneath. I’ve still not quite got the postures right, as occasional sore knees reveal. I can’t visualise the top of my head, hanging from a thread suspended from heaven, an idea that helps with the correct, upright posture. I can still feel uncoordinated, I still bump into things, I still get tense. I don’t have panic attacks any more though.

I sometimes feel a force (the chi?) between my hands. I sometimes feel it in my belly. I usually feel warm, and heavy and content when I practise tai chi. Although also I get annoyed and irritated that I still can’t do it right. And I keep going. Because always after I practise, I feel so much better.