“Swimming on Land”

©Copyright 2014 by Robert Chuckrow
Revised July 3, 2018.

My first T’ai-Chi teacher, Cheng Man-ch’ing, talked and wrote1, 2, 3 about the importance of what he called “Swimming on Land,” which means feeling (imagining) the air as having the resistance and consistency of water while practicing T’ai Chi (Taiji). Prof. Cheng also stated, “As you make greater progress, the air will not only feel heavier than water; it will feel like iron.”4

For a long time, I had difficulty in reconciling this concept with Prof. Cheng’s frequent admonitions to relax completely and surrender to gravity (sung). I reasoned that using any muscular force against an imaginary resistance would also require generating a counter force by the opposing muscles, thus locking the body. So it seemed that imagining resistance would make me stiff. Also, classmates of mine who tried practicing against resistance appeared to be using lots of contractive muscular strength. So I abstained from practicing “swimming on land.”

I eventually realized that feeling resistance need not involve actually using muscular strength. It is scientifically known that merely imagining doing an action evokes a neural stimulation of the very muscles that would accomplish the imagined action but below the threshold of outward 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.

In summary, imagining resistance is more an activity of the nervous system than one involving muscles. It results in a perception of using strength without actually exerting any strength. That is, imagining resistance causes nerves to send electrical stimuli (bio-electricity) to muscles and other bodily tissues but below the threshold of outward muscular action.

Why Practice “Swimming on Land”?

I am now convinced that in promoting “Swimming on land,” Prof. Cheng was revealing a tool for recognizing and then cultivating the internal state (neigong) essential for both the health and self-defense aspects of T’ai Chi.

Cultivating Jin. One of the main goals in T’ai-Chi-Ch’uan practice is to develop what is called jin as opposed to li (see article explaining the distinction between jin and li). Li is the kind of muscular action to which most of us are habituated and involves contraction of muscles. Jin is quite different and much harder to cultivate, especially because recognition of the difference between the two kinds of strength is so elusive. Jin is unified, refined, relaxed, non-contractive, and expansive. In what follows, we will refer to jin as “expansive strength.”

To begin practicing expansive strength, it is essential to be able to recognize and then release habitual contractive tension. Of course, total release of strength would result in not being able to move or lift a limb. But seeking to relax as much contractive strength as possible and also moving against imagined resistance is a way of initiating expansive strength. In short, relaxing as much as possible and imagining resistance increases recognition of how to produce the neural action of relaxed, expansive strength. As this new neural action becomes increasingly intense, more-widely distributed, and more under conscious volition, the movements are then increasingly done by using that kind of strength. Now there is a feeling of exertion but without any sensation that muscles are contracted. The feeling is one of expansion of the water in our tissues.

To see a truly impressive use of expansion in doing T’ai-Chi movement, please watch the first 5 minutes of this youtube.com video of Wang Shu-jin.

Note: For many tasks in daily life, contractive muscular action is appropriate. Contraction is especially good for generating large movement and a large amount of force for a short period of time. In T’ai-Chi movement, however, we seek to cultivate a specialized, alternative kind of relaxed, expansive strength suitable for cultivating health and, for those so inclined, for training the martial aspect of T’ai-Chi-Ch’uan (Taijiquan).

Advantages of Use of Expansive Strength

Cultivating Ch’i. When the muscles are in a state of contraction, the transport of blood and the movements of muscle, gland, and organ cells are restricted. However, the cellular stimulation resulting from use of expansive strength adds additional, important health benefits beyond those of simply relaxing muscles. I have written about the idea that ch’i is very closely related to neural stimulation of cells, which causes beneficial micro-movement of them and assists in their absorption of oxygen and nutrients and elimination of waste (see article: A Biological Interpretation of Ch’i). If the idea that ch’i is related to neural cellular stimulation is correct, then increasing neural stimulation in the absence of muscular contraction results in a corresponding increase in ch’i and a stepped-up cellular absorption of nutrients and oxygen, a more-efficient release of toxic waste products, and an increased ability for the cells to distribute their contents optimally.

Self-Defense. In a self-defense situation, an opponent can easily read your intention if you use conventional (contractive) strength. Moreover, feeling your strength, the opponent then automatically increases his strength, and each party keeps escalating until the stronger one wins. But what if you are weakened by old age, injury, or illness? Then the opponent will probably be stronger than you and will likely win. On the other hand, the use of expansive strength is concealed and does not lead to such an escalation. If your jin is highly developed, an opponent who contacts you feels that your limbs are very heavy and connected to every other part of your body. Such strength is concealed and not easily read by the opponent, who doesn’t tend to escalate his strength. Of course, expansive strength isn’t enough—you also need to be trained in self-defense.

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. Practicing electrifying and expanding your limbs and trunk will increase your alertness and noticeably shorten your processing and response times.

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A recent Harvard Medical School web article quotes a study showing that “T’ai Chi can improve cognitive function.“ Perhaps that study might show stronger results by grouping subjects by use of jin or not.

How to Confirm that You are Using Expansive Strength

The question naturally arises, “I think I am using expansive strength, but how do I know if I am really doing so?” First, when doing T’ai-Chi movements, it is essential to release contractive strength so completely that every part of your body moves fluidly and responds to tiny amounts of momentum. Whereas being relaxed is necessary to attain jin, it is not sufficient. One test of use of jin is that 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 and your arms are expanded and potentially able to express a large amount of power without being stiff (“iron wrapped in cotton”). Another test is to assess the feeling of your muscles when you think that you are using expansive strength. Then try achieving that action by contracting muscles instead. You should feel a noticeable difference between the two types of strength, and that difference becomes even greater with practice. Namely; expansion involves a unified feeling of electrical stimulation, and contraction involves a sensation that is pronounced midway between the joints.

“Zombie-Style T’ai Chi”

Many T’ai-Chi practitioners work on and succeed in doing movements with the minimum strength. But because they were told not to use strength, they never attain jin. Instead, they are still using contractive strength (li) albeit minimally. That condition is called “floating,” and I call it “zombie-style.” Anyone who has cultivated expansive strength can instantly recognize the difference between use of jin and li in another person’s movements.

Swimming on Land is Only a Tool for Recognizing Jin

It is important to understand that once the proper internal state is recognized and practiced, that state should then be recreated directly. Now the tool of imagining resistance is no longer necessary and should be set aside (see article: Dangers of Overusing Images).

The ultimate goal is to be able to spread neural activity throughout the whole body at will, expressing potential strength in every direction without contracting muscles. 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, resulting in expansion. When that skill is learned, one’s intention can increase the breadth of that electrification. Eventually, the whole body feels like steel but still 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 then permeates every part of the body with remarkable intensity.

Another Tool for Recognizing Jin

One way to recognize a modality is to refer to what you already can do, even if only involuntarily so. Specifically, we all utilize expansion of the diaphragm with every inhalation. The goal is to learn to do that expansion voluntarily, independently of breathing. The following exercise involves two people, A and B.

Exercise for learning voluntary Expansion of Diaphragm

A Two-Person Exercise for Learning Voluntary Expansion of the Diaphragm.

Referring to the figure above, A stands behind B and places her hands on B’s waist, just below her ribs. A then presses inward, and B then tries to move A’s hands outward by expanding her diaphragm in all directions—to the front, sides, and rear. If more pressure is needed for recognition, A can press with the web of each hand (the part between thumb and forefinger). It is important that B use only her diaphragm—not her ribs or abdomen.

Once B succeeds in producing a voluntary expansion of her diaphragm, A and B reverse roles. Afterward participants strive to learn to voluntarily expand all other parts of their bodies in doing Ch’i-Kung (Qigong) and T’ai-Chi movement.

In addition to being a tool for recognizing expansion, the ability to voluntarily expand your diaphragm subtly—not forcibly—is essential for doing reverse breathing5 and for unifying the entire trunk of the body.

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, pp. 36–39.

4Cheng Man-ch’ing, Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on T’ai Chi Ch’uan, p. 39.

5Robert Chuckrow, Tai Chi Dynamics, YMAA Publication Center, Wolfeboro, NH, 2008, Ch. 2.

Related Articles:

Cultivating the Correct Internal State in T’ai-Chi Movement

Is Active Muscular Extension Possible?

Muscular Strength: Advantages of Expansion Over Contraction in T’ai Chi

More Articles on and Information About T’ai Chi

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