Body Tension, Mental Tension & Tai Chi

tai-chi-tensionSteve Kerr asked “I understand what is meant by ‘isolated’ tension, but could you please clarify what is meant by ‘Systemic’ tension?” after he read the Push Hands Sensitivity article.

In basic terms what I am calling “systemic tension” means the whole body and often the person’s mind is also tense.

The average untrained person in America, and from what I have experienced in most other parts of the world as well, carry what I am referring to here as “systemic tension”.  Basically, it is what most people mean when they say that a person is tense.  It is not in an isolated location but they are tense all over.

This tension can be mental tension that is expressed all over their body but it can be and often is that the person is just not able to really physically relax because they have been in a state of tension for so long that the only time their body really relaxes is when they are asleep.  In fact today most people have some amount of what I am calling “systemic tension” most of the time.  For a person to be called “tense” by others usually means that the person is so tense that the average person can easily pick it up which means they are really experiencing a state of being that dramatically increases their risk for a heart attack or stroke.

In Tai Chi we are really working on relaxing fully and losing ALL extra and unnecessary tension in/from the entire body and mind.  This tension is often caused and or exacerbated by stress and is a major drain on our energy.  Over time this tension and stress adversely affects our health making us unhealthy including inappropriately tired, sick (including the heart attack and stroke risk mentioned above) and ultimately shortening our lives.

In non-competition based Tai Chi  when we practice push hands the first thing we do is properly align our body and relax.  When teaching this the first thing taught is structure.  Then we work on how to relax, teaching the individual to let their structure do the work while they relax as much as possible so that they can conserve their strength and energy.  Then we teach how to feel inside of the other person.  Most beginners have tension throughout most of their body while they are just standing there. After structural corrections are made the student is helped to relax and then asked to feel inside of us.

When the average beginning student first tries to feel inside of someone else they almost always exert force and add tension which actually blocks the ability to feel and perceive.  The tension can be isolated in their body (usually the shoulders and arms and it can just as easily be in their back) but quite often it is just an overall tension which I have referred to here as “systemic tension” because it is in their entire body and not isolated to any specific location or locations.


  1. Hello Sigung Clear.
    I understand that any tension tends to block sensitivity. Do you have any pointers for dealing with the rapid onset of tension caused by adrenalin release and fight/flight response in a real world mugging scenario ?


    • Sigung Clear says

      Thank you for the question.

      First of all, in a mugging scenario adrenalin release usually manifests in a body and mind that are untrained and unprepared to handle that much energy. When this happens the person’s mind and body unfortunately tends to freeze at the one time that they really need a fight or flight response.

      The ideal effect of proper Tai Chi training is to learn how to stay calm and moving / active even when the body and mind are tense and the emotions are high and over riding the person’s common sense / survival instinct. Really intense push hands is an excellent training mechanism for this as you must maintain all of your correct body qualities and alignments while trying not to be pushed out and while trying to push out the other person. So, in competitive push hands there is a lot going on and a lot to do while keeping yourself together which is really great training for dealing with the chaos of a bad situation.

      The other thing to realize is that the adrenalin energy and fear / excitement will be present in your body even if you are very confident in your ability to handle the situation. These chemicals and emotional energy will need to be acknowledged even if you are able to mentally overcome them. My recommendation in this case is for the individual to train to use the energy and move without stopping even if the movement is in place. Do this to train out the freeze response and to train in the movement so that it is easy to go to fight or flight as and when needed. I think of it as using the energy that is being released and ride it to try to obtain a safe proactive conclusion to the attack

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