Many people think of flexibility, muscle length or extension, as the opposite of stiffness, but oftentimes people are both flexible and stiff.
Looseness is a quality of movement which includes the ability to change spontaneously, quickly, and easily. Looseness and flexibility each require different approaches to training. Flexibility, looseness, softness, and internal coordination or 'connection' are four distinct qualities of movement which work together. Missing one of these four will create a deficiency. These four together support the uninhibited circulation of qi.
Stretching often feels invigorating, but it is possible to over stretch. In transitioning between stretches, ease and balance should not be over looked. If we focus primarily on developing flexibility by getting our muscles very warm, even hot, and then stretching, but little on transitions, we may end up reducing the flexibility we have when our muscles are cold, thus, making our comfort range in daily activities smaller. The nervous system becomes like a rubber-band: it stretches way out, but then it springs back in response to having been pulled out of its comfort range. This kind of flexibility is usually combined with strengthening, exacerbating the problem further with insensitivity.
In contrast, the qi gong approach is gentle,
and can be done without having to first warm up the muscles. Muscles which are always stretched to their limit don't know what a safe range of motion is, the muscles themselves appear to recoil in fear.
Someone whose muscles are very loose when they are hot but tight when they are cold will have to practice stretching in a much smaller range of motion in order to calm the recoiling effect of their nervous system. Much less common, but equally problematic, is combining over stretching with reckless looseness. Looseness with out evenness and balanced development or internal connection, can create over stretched ligaments. Many of the chronic injuries stemming from this type of looseness will be familiar to dancers.
The natural wrapping and twisting of muscles and tendons is an important developmental stage. Dancers who began their training at a young age sometimes skip this stage of development. The ability of all muscles to wrap and twist can be highly developed but it can also be overlooked in an attempt to get what is called 'a better extension.' Ligament injuries are associated with the impulse to release and extend in order to get the hands and feet as far away from the spine as possible. With out the the twisting and wrapping of muscles and tendons to support looseness in the joints, the ligaments eventually take the strain, and ligaments have little elasticity. People with these kind of injuries are usually taught to strengthen all the little muscles around the injury (a la Pilaties).
The qigong approach to dealing with this kind of an injury or tendency needs to be shown and felt first hand. It involves learning to draw qi into the central core of the body while simultaneously expanding, a sense of 'closing inside of opening.'
Individual muscles are capable of very complex movement, like the tongue which is a muscle that is only attached at one end. Many people think of muscle movement simply as a sort of on-off switch, contraction-release. In the case of most weight lifting the emphases is put on contracting muscles. Modern gyms use all sorts of apparatuses for muscle building, all essentially designed with this contraction-release concept of muscles.
Chronic tension in the spine is sometimes compensating for ligaments which are stretched to the limit by poor alignment. When the muscles around the spine attempt to protect the ligaments and become chronically tense, circulation and ability to feel the area are undermined. If any one part of the spine is restricted, it tends to restrict the movement of the rest of the spine, this is because the muscles and ligaments tend to release either in a wave sequence or simultaneously, not in isolation. When we attempt to stretch chronically tight regions of our spine, we are more likely to over stretch ligaments than we are to release the area of tension. Eventually many people strain ligaments, bone or discs.
The process of unraveling tension in the spine should be gentle and gradual. Having partners who watch or lightly place their hands on each others spine to give direct feed back about how the spine is releasing is the best way to learn this.
Many hip injuries happen in a similar way. People with a chronically tense hip, may have begun with very loose hips. The muscles around our hips twist and wrap in many complex ways. If the ability of these muscles to twist and wrap hasn't been developed in someone who has naturally loose hip sockets, minor dislocations of the hip can lead to strain on the ligaments which causes the hip muscles to contract leading to loss of mobility and sometimes chronic pain. Twisting and wrapping in muscles is a kind of developmental ground for the most dynamic and refined movement the body can do and it is an essential support for the development of healthy looseness in the joints.
When all the soft tissues in the body work together, the bones can move in effortless spirals. It's ironic that learning this is often easier for both young people whose bodies are still growing, and older people, who are losing muscle mass and find it difficult to build and keep new muscle. Those who find it easy to build dense protective muscle tissue tend to rely on bulky muscles to do everything. 'Why be weak when you can be strong?' is the conventional wisdom.