“Swimming on Land”

©Copyright 2014 by Robert Chuckrow

My first T’ai-Chi teacher, Cheng Man-ch’ing, talked and wrote1, 2 about the importance of feeling the air as having the resistance and consistency of water while practicing the T’ai-Chi (Taiji) empty-hand form. Prof. Cheng also stated, “As you make greater progress, the air will not only feel heavier than water; it will feel like iron.”3 For a long time, I had difficulty in reconciling this concept with Prof. Cheng’s frequent admonitions to relax all contractive tension and surrender to gravity (sung). It seemed that imagining resistance would make me stiff, and classmates of mine who tried practicing against resistance appeared to be using an inordinate amount of muscular strength.

I reasoned that contracting muscles against an imaginary resistance would require the opposing muscles to contract equally, thus locking the body. Thus, I abstained from practicing “swimming on land” until I reconciled that concept with that of achieving sung.

One day, it dawned on me that feeling resistance need not involve actually using muscular strength. It is scientifically known that merely imagining doing an action results in neural stimulation of the very muscles that would accomplish the imagined action but below the threshold of appreciable muscular action. Therefore, taking Prof. Cheng’s advice to feel (imagine) the air as having the resistance of water does not at all contradict his advice to relax. Imagining resistance is more an activity involving the nervous system than one involving muscles. It results in a perception of use of strength without actually exerting any strength. That is, imagining resistance causes nerves to send electrical stimuli (bio-electricity) to muscles but below the threshold of outward muscular action.

The question naturally arises, “How do I know if I am really relaxed when I perceive myself as using strength?” An answer is that, when doing T’ai-Chi movements, you are relaxed if every part of your body moves fluidly and responds to tiny amounts of momentum. Moreover, in practicing Push-Hands, your partner will be able to move you easily with a very small amount of force yet sense that all parts of your body are unified together and potentially able to express a large amount of power (steel wrapped in cotton).

Benefits of Swimming on Land

Cultivating Ch’i. I have written about the idea that ch’i is very closely related to neural stimulation of cells, which causes beneficial motion of the matter within the cells and assists the cells in absorbing oxygen and nutrients and eliminating waste (see article: A Biological Interpretation of Ch’i). If this idea is correct, then increasing neural stimulation below the threshold of muscular contraction results in a corresponding increase in the beneficial effects of ch’i.

Cultivating Jin (Correct Strength). In T’ai-Chi Ch’uan, there is a distinction between two types of strength, jin and li. Li is awkward, brute strength, whereas jin is the refined strength that is cultivated through correct practice of T’ai-Chi. The combination of being as relaxed as possible and sending neural information corresponding to the exertion of strength leads to the ability to achieve the unified, relaxed, non-contractive, refined strength called jin (see article explaining the distinction between jin and li).

Educating Neural Pathways. Imagining moving against resistance in practicing T’ai-Chi involves the constantly changing, moment-by-moment sending, receiving, and processing of neural information. Doing so leads to educating neural pathways for coordinated, quick, efficient, and appropriate responses to new situations. Since practicing electrifying my limbs and trunk, my processing and reaction times have noticeably shortened.

It is important to understand that imagining resistance is only a tool for recognizing the proper internal state. Once that state is recognized and practiced, the tool of imagining resistance should be discarded, and that state can be recreated directly (see article: Dangers of overusing images). That is, in my view, the goal is to be able to spread neural activity throughout the whole body, expressing potential strength in every direction to an increasingly greater degree but always below the threshold of muscular tension and outward muscular action. Consider, for example, doing “Brush Knee.” A simplistic way of practicing “swimming on land” in that movement might be to imagine that the upper hand is striking and that the lower hand is circling the opponent’s punching hand to his knee. Instead, I view imagining resistance to be just a tool for recognizing the skill of sending neural electricity. When that skill is learned, one’s intention can increase the breadth of that electrification. Eventually, the whole body feels like steel but sill remains relaxed, pliable, and responsive. The feeling is one of having tremendous strength in every direction—not just in the direction of the movement. The resulting ch’i permeates every part of the body with remarkable intensity.


1Cheng Man-ch’ing, Tai Chi Chuan: A simplified Method of Calisthenics for Health and Self Defense, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA, 1985, p. 10.

2Cheng Man-ch’ing and Robert W. Smith, T’ai Chi: The “Supreme ultimate” Exercise for Health, Sport, and Self Defense, Charles E. Tuttle Co., Rutland, VT, 1967, p. 12.

3Cheng Man-ch’ing, Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Translated by Benjamin Pang Jen Lo and Martin Inn, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA, 1981, p. 39.

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