Developing ‘Sung’

by Phil Johnson

If there is one idea that is common to all the Internal Arts, regardless of style or the degree of understanding of Six Harmonies Movement constructs, it is the requirement to be loose and relaxed (‘sung’ or ‘song’). Without this baseline prerequisite upper body muscle will inevitably be involved in the movements and the intricate body connections required to generate whole body movement will not be felt. Yet this is an ability that can be difficult to achieve. Relaxation while standing in an upright posture is not a straightforward process as each of us has developed our own method of defying gravity when learning to walk and this has left a legacy of inherent tensions that we may well be unaware of. Add to that any chronic issues that may have developed through the rigors of life and it can be difficult to achieve this basic starting point. One common method of teaching relaxation is to perform a body scan, starting at the head top and slowly going down through the body relaxing it part by part. While this improves awareness, the problem with this method is that it does not teach how to relax; even if we are able to detect tension there is a big difference between awareness and being able to let it go. Focusing on a specific area of chronic tension can even exacerbate the problem. Other common teaching methods that assist 'sung' are through joint loosening exercises and the correction and gradual improvement of posture over time.

Relaxation while Upright

The downward pull of earth’s gravity is a constant in terms of both force and direction which requires an equal force in the opposite direction to resist. The question is how can we be completely relaxed and remain upright? On consideration this would seem impossible. However there are helpful clues in some the common maxims regarding Taijiquan if we know how to decipher the language used; and the insights these provide are a keystone to understanding many of the baseline skills of this art.

Two well-known sayings in Taijiquan describe gravity and its dichotomy; these are “sink the chi” and “suspend the head top”. Sinking the chi describes taking our body weight to ground together with any force applied to us. Suspend the head top is somewhat ambiguous since there is nothing to suspend it from. It is a visualisation technique that resonates with the Taoist belief that man stands erect between heaven and earth. If we consider these ideas in conjunction with another less well known cross platform saying from the Internal Arts we can postulate a better understanding. “You cannot do Internal / Six Harmonies / Silk Reeling movement (properly) until there is a feeling of separation between the flesh and the bones”. If we sink all our body weight to the soles of our feet and reflect just enough force back up to the top of our head through the bone structure we can support our body weight in a relaxed manner, so long as our arms remain by our side. To achieve this there must be a light upward extension from foot to the top of the head through the bone structure (“suspend the head top”) while gravity is allowed to pull the flesh downward (“sink the chi”). This is an expression of yin yang at a fundamental level that must be present during practice at all times.

Essential to achieving this state is the ability to relax the ‘kua’ and lower back in order to transmit the upper body weight to ground. The feeling can be likened to sitting into the posture as if we are standing astride a beam set at a perfect height for us to sit on. Good intrinsic leg strength is therefore a requirement. The test of our relaxation is feeling all our body weight at the soles of our feet.

This basic technique is commonly used across Asia when heavy loads are carried on the head. The body must remain relaxed while the load is allowed to sink to the soles of the feet supported by a basic jin pathway. It is important to note however that such an ability is developed very gradually (and usually from a young age), starting with very light loads to avoid using any primary muscles in the upper body.

Extending the arms

This is all well and good as long as the load is along the centre line of the body but the moment we extend our arms we introduce the need to support them. To do this we need to understand classic Chinese anatomical theory. A major part of Six Harmonies Movement theory is the involvement of the collagen based connective tissues. Traditional thinking breaks these down into three separate groups. The yin tissues are responsible for drawing the front of the body and insides of arms and legs toward the dantien during closing while the yang tissues draw the back and outsides of the arms and legs toward the mingmen (which can be considered the back of the dantien) during opening. A third group extends from the top of the head down through the shoulders and along the tops of the arms and it is this group that is responsible for supporting the arms.

Zang Zhuang

The traditional method of developing this ability is through Zang Zhuang (Standing Post) training. The arms are hung from the head top in a manner similar to a coat on a hanger by sheets of facia that run from the tops of the arms and shoulders up to the top of the head. The problem with this technique is that the facia must first be developed in order to hang the arms in this way and the use of our primary muscles to hold our arms up negates the development of the facia. The paradox being that we cannot relax an extended arm without the correct body development; we cannot achieve that development without being relaxed. The sensible approach to overcoming this is to start by holding the arms in a very low position only raising them incrementally when we feel capable of doing so without using the primary muscles in our arms. It is important for a beginner not to hold the arms too high or for too long as this introduces tension which is counterproductive.

Zang Zhuang and Jin

Initial Zang Zhuang practice for an aspiring internalist should focus on relaxation and the resultant body development in order to enable correct body usage but there are numerous other functions that standing can train. If we understand the concept of jin (and therefore chi), we can use this practice to simultaneously begin our jin development by projecting an upward jin pathway in order to help support our arms without involving our primary muscles. The practicing and development of jin skills is one of the ultimate aims of Zang Zhuang. Jin is a topic that is covered in the Internal Strength article on this site.

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