The Essential Energies: Tension

Lately I’ve been thinking about tension, which in taiji movement is often considered “the enemy.”  Sometimes it is, but not universally.  There’s more to the story.

Tension itself is a neutral physical force; whether it is helpful or harmful depends on the situation.  One delightfully ridiculous real-life example of harnessing tension and putting it to (good?) use are the yearly “Punkin Chunkin” contests, where people build machines to throw pumpkins and hold competitions to see which can throw the farthest.  Many of the machines are based on the design of ancient siege engines, catapults and trebuchets, which work by storing potential energy and then releasing it to launch some kind of missile.  The storage of energy creates tension in the machine; the release of that energy/tension causes the desired action.

Taiji incorporates the same idea.  Some form of twist or compression can be introduced to an area of the body and then released to power a movement.  In this respect, the human body is very like the pumpkin-throwing machines:  potential energy is stored, then released.  The storage of energy involves tension.  That being the case, there are some critical taiji lessons and life lessons to be learned from (of all things) pumpkin-throwing siege engines.  

First, an effective catapult design can handle a great deal of tension, but only if the machine is used in the right way.  The arm of a basic catapult is intended to be pulled back and held in only one direction.  Try to pull that arm sideways, perpendicular to the direction in which it’s supposed to move, and the machine isn’t going to throw anything.  It’s more likely to break completely.

The human body is likewise designed to move and handle tension in particular ways.  In order to be effective, taiji movement (or any kind of movement) has to work within the limitations of the body’s design.  Twisting the waist is often a good idea.  Twisting the knee is never a good idea.  In order to work with our body-machines safely, let alone efficiently or powerfully, we have learn to work with their structure, strengths, and weaknesses.

Throughout life, there are positive and negative types of tension.  The kind of tension caused by taking on a new challenge, the sort that helps us grow and learn, can be a really positive experience.  Tension that comes from poor environments, poor relationships, or poor self-image is negative and destructive.  We’re not designed to live and grow under those conditions.

The second lesson we can learn from pumpkin-throwing machines is that the creation and storage of energy may take an extended period of time, but the release of that tension happens immediately and completely.  When the moment of launch comes, there’s no restraint on the machine’s action.  Imagine slowly pulling back the arm of a catapult, and then releasing it just as slowly, cranking the tension off just a bit at a time.  No pumpkin is going to get air that way.

In taiji, any storage of energy via tension needs to be released immediately and completely in order to be effective.  When the body relaxes, stored energy can move freely.  If any degree of tension remains, then energy is being trapped inside the body, where all it can do is create unhelpful stress, fatigue, and even injury.  Tension is only a useful concept for managing potential energy.  When that energy becomes active, tension is no longer helpful.

Outside of taiji, tension can be a really useful motivator to make things happen.  Deadlines are a prime example: people work overtime when projects are due, students pull all-nighters to finish papers and study for tests, housecleaning happens when a guest is about to arrive.  Sometimes it takes the pressure of a “must be done by” date to push us into action, and that pressure is a sort of tension.  We feel our available time compress, and it makes us get to work.

Deadlines aren’t the only way to create motivating tension.  I think inspiration is a really interesting form of tension — the pull of a new idea can be utterly compelling.  The very earliest stages of a project are often the most productive for me, because of this can’t-wait-to-see-what-happens tension that can only find release in doing the work.

Regardless how it comes about, tension is still only useful for managing potential energy, potential action.  Tension can help get us going, but once we’re on the move, tension is no longer helpful.  For example, if a student studies for a test while tense and worried about whether she started early enough, whether she will pass or not, whether she is going to be able to absorb the material, she is hindering her ability to learn.  When studying begins, tension must be released — the best thing the student can do is relax and focus on the task at hand.  Holding on to tension after the work begins can only make things harder; it can only waste energy and cause fatigue.  When tension is released, then one’s energy can go fully into doing the work.

Finally, tension is a force with a short “expiration date.”  Even machines that are built to create huge amounts of tension are seldom built to contain that tension for long.  Imagine taking our pumpkin-throwing catapult, pulling the arm back, and then leaving the machine alone for a year, cocked and ready to throw.  Depending on the design and materials used, a year spent under tension will break the machine.  The breaks may be literal, if any components aren’t up to the strain over a long period of time.  But even if the machine’s parts remain intact, constant tension will affect its structure, changing its shape, causing it to lose resiliency.  If a catapult arm is cocked for an entire year, it may never spring back again, and so its value as a catapult disappears.

As I’ve discussed before, one of the most fundamental energies of taiji movement is peng, a relaxed sense of fullness and resiliency.  Peng is incompatible with constant tension, because constant tension saps resiliency.  The value of tension in taiji movement only comes in brief doses — compress the body, release the energy created, and then return to peng.

Also, the body’s resiliency depends on mobility and flexibility.  Long-held tension leads to rigidness and immobility, as the structure trying to contain tension adapts itself by taking on a new shape, new characteristics.  Brief moments of tension can help promote mobility; constant tension will destroy it.

Some people seem to live with constant, self-inflicted states of frantic energy, stress, and tension.  They may believe they are getting more done, being more effective, even being virtuous.  In reality, they are wrecking themselves.  It may be possible to gain a temporary burst of productivity or satisfaction from living in a tense, highly-strung state, but it can’t last.  They will lose their resiliency, become brittle and unable to cope with life’s inevitable surprises and problems.  That tension will eventually take its toll on mind, body, spirit, relationships, work, energy, mood, health.  It will warp the life that tries to contain it.  Tension is a powerful force, a tool to be used, not a state-of-being to embrace.

Tension is a great motivator, giving a boost of energy and momentum when used sparingly and correctly.  Understand tension, and it can help one achieve one’s goals effectively — whether those goals are powerful physical movement, finishing a work project, creating a new work of art, or just launching a squash down a long field.  Who says all goals should be serious and practical, anyway?

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