5.a.xix.beginners_skills- Section

Beginners Skills

Loosening and Stretching

by Nick Gudge  - Aug 2009  

This article is aimed at beginners and repeats some of the material that is explored more deeply contained in “The Five Most Important Skills for Beginners.”


My experience is that most (more than 99%) people are much stiffer than they realise. This stiffness is learned and habitual. When beginning taijiquan the first skill that needs to be understood and developed is fang song, sometimes abbreviated to song. Song is frequently translated as “relax.” While this is true, it does not really describe the process. The joints must relax. However, as a consequence, other parts of the body must work harder, particularly the legs. Loosening the joints is perhaps a better translation. The result should not be a body like a cooked bowl of spaghetti; rather it should be like a solid piece of rubber, strong but not stiff.

For most people studying taijiquan, loosening appears early on in their lessons. Unfortunately, most adults (and many children) are much stiffer than they realise. We do not know where we are tight, nor the degree of stiffness we generally maintain in our joints. In taijiquan, the requirement of loosening the joints, relaxing the habitual stiffness from them, getting used to holding them without stiffness, then moving them without stiffness is central: Shoulders and hips, elbows and knees, the spine, particularly in the waist, the ankles and wrists.

When a joint is loosened, it is free to rotate or turn with as little hindrance or resistance as possible. The taijiquan classics talk of even the smallest pressure of a feather or a fly causing movement, like a finely balanced and oiled ball-bearing, where even the lightest touch causes it to rotate.

How do we know when a joint is stiff? Well, initially we do not know it is stiff but, as a learning tool, it is probably more effective to say that as adults they always are stiff, usually to a much greater degree than we realise. While this is an unpalatable truth, it is a good starting point. A good teacher helps a student see where their stiffness lies. The student needs to be shown repeatedly where a joint is stiff. This is because the student neither knows that the stiffness is there nor how to loosen it. Their habit is to move with this stiffness. With practise, the joints become looser, and deeper structural stiffness becomes apparent. As the shoulders loosen, the arms feel heavier. As the hips loosen, the legs work considerably harder. So, for the beginner, heaviness in the arms and the legs working very hard, are good indicators that the skill of loosening or fangsong is being developed.

Stiffness is difficult to recognise, but the effects of stiffness are easier to see. As the joints stiffen, they rise up. As they are loosened, the body, particularly the hips and shoulders, sinks down. For a beginner it is easy to confuse bending the knees for relaxing the hips (song kua), and lowering the arms for relaxing the shoulders. One of the many reasons why taijiquan is called an oral art is that it requires a teacher who understands to show the way. Almost everyone, (more than 99% of people,) need to be shown the way repeatedly before they understand it in their mind, and then corrected repeatedly before they understand it in their body. Much practice in this process is required for it to make sense and take hold. Many people get the basic idea in their mind but do not practice enough to realise it in their body.

Around each joint is a structure of muscle. For all the joints that rotate, we can initially consider them having a top, bottom, front and back. Each part needs to be trained to loosen before the joint will open properly. As each part of a joint is loosened, other parts of the body assume the workload of holding the body. In the beginning, this is mostly felt in the legs. Loosening the hips a little brings a significant additional workload onto the thighs. Until the legs become used to doing this extra work, no more loosening of the hips can be learnt. Loosening the hips a little makes the legs work much harder. Practicing with this extra work in the legs makes them stronger. When they have been strengthened in this way and are used to this extra work, then more loosening can take place.

Once the joints are loosened, they will be free to rotate properly and to transmit rotation to and from other parts of the body. This is a fundamental requirement of taijiquan. Any impediment to the joints rotating freely will result in a diminishing of taijiquan skill. The more joints that are unable to rotate freely, or the greater the resistance within each joint, the less taijiquan skill will be apparent. The more joints that are able to rotate freely, or the lesser the resistance within each joint, the greater the taijiquan skill will be apparent. This is why loosening the body is the first, most basic skill in taijiquan.

When beginning to learn taijiquan, loosening the body includes loosening the spine. If the body is not held upright then there will be excess muscular activity leading to stiffness. Most people do not know what it is to stand up straight. They have the habit of locking their knees, causing a tilt in the pelvis, which in turn causes their body to leans backwards. This creates significant stiffness around the spine and across the lower and mid-torso and hips. When the body is upright (ding) then it becomes possible to loosen the spine and the waist and then the hips. If ding is not present then it is most likely none of these can be achieved.


Stretching is the method of opening the joints without stiffening them. The particular way of stretching in taijiquan is called peng jin (sometimes simply peng) and is the core skill of taijiquan. All other taijiquan skills are based around the skill. It comes from loosening the body (fang song) and stretching. In essence, ‘stretching but not straightening’ the joints. This type of stretching is not a natural or instinctive skill. It comes from a long period of correct practice. Without a good understanding of this stretching and then considerable training to transform this understanding into this skill in every part of the body, it will not happen. Peng will not be gained by accident. It is systematically trained into the body over time.

The fundamental skill peng describes when the limbs and body stretch or extend while maintaining looseness or fang song. Without looseness (fang song) the body is stiff and peng is lost. If the body is too loose or limp then peng is also lost. Without stretching the body is not properly connected and peng is lost. If the limbs and body are over extended then they become rigid and peng is lost. So it is fairly easy to see that a “balance” must be maintained to retain peng. If any part of the body does not have peng, it is an error and must be remedied appropriately. Many form corrections are about regaining peng to various parts of the body, most commonly the knees and elbows. Typically peng is lost or lessened because the body has stiffened or not been loosened sufficiently, most commonly the hips and shoulders.

This type of stretching is not an “on / off” skill. While it is easy not to have it, once it is understood its quality can be improved. Like any form of understanding e.g. learning a new language, it is quite possible not to understand anything in the beginning. While learning there are many degrees of improvement or quality that can be sought and reached. From this understanding it is quite easy to see not only the importance of looseness (fang song) as an integral pre-requisite for peng – this fundamental skill of taijiquan – but also, that improving the appropriate looseness of the body will improve the quality or degree of peng skill.

From inside the body, when peng is present any pressure is transferred to the ground (rooted.) The stretching process connects the body in such a way that this happens without additional effort. It could be called a flexible structure inside the body. Consequently when peng is present the body becomes a little like a solid rubber object. It is not rigid, but loose and flexible where pressure to any part is easily transferred across its whole structure. With loose joints the body becomes mobile and by stretching it becomes connected. So any pressure on the body causes rotation or motion.

So beginning with loosening the body, then adding stretching without becoming rigid, the skill that is peng jin becomes manifest in the body. Initially at the start and end of each posture, then continuously in the process of motion.

More importantly this upward stretching without stiffening has the effect of lifting excess stresses off the various parts of the spine and allowing them to move freely, similar to the way traction in hospital can free the back from inappropriate strains and pressures so it can move freely. One additional result is that the circulation to the head through the neck and the circulation to the hand through the shoulders is improved. Consequently the movement of qi around the body becomes more noticeable. 

Nick Gudge is a student of Wang Hai Jun and teaches Chen style taijiquan (tai chi) classes in Limerick.