Tai Chi

For those who prefer to watch rather than read, the following video demonstrates the enormous benefits to health and wellbeing that arise from the practice of Tai Chi:

Also of interest is what the Mayo Clinic in the USA has to say about Tai Chi.

In addition, a number of UK National Health Service (NHS) webpages recommend Tai Chi, including:

Tai Chi is a gentle series of slow, relaxing motions that switch off our ‘fight/flight/freeze’ response by cleansing the body’s tissue of accumulated stress, and as physical and emotional stresses melt away, what remains is an incredible sense of wellbeing. This dramatically boosts the immune system’s ability to fight disease, while simultaneously reducing the incidence of depression, anxiety and even chronic pain conditions, and in this way, Tai Chi helps us to stay ‘young’ as we gradually grow older.

It is rapidly growing in popularity all over Europe and North America and has become one of the most widely practised forms of exercise, with over 200 million followers worldwide. This is largely due to its enormous prestige in a country which has the biggest population in the world – parks in China, where Tai Chi is the national health exercise, and also parks in various other Far East countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, are full of individuals practising various forms of Tai Chi and also Qigong. And in all these countries, competition athletes from various sporting backgrounds use the discipline to improve their reflexes and prevent pain and stiffness after training, because Tai Chi gently exercises every muscle, ligament, tendon and joint of the body while simultaneously massaging the lymph nodes and internal organs, and this also speeds up recovery time from injuries.

The slow, deliberate movements and attention to breath, body positions and sensations fosters intense self-awareness, for Tai Chi’s emphasis on moment-to-moment sensory perception of even the subtlest changes of position, dramatically increases proprioceptive sensitivity, promoting deep mindfulness, which improves focus throughout all other activities.

One of its major advantages over most other forms of exercise is that it doesn’t require special facilities or clothing, and doesn’t even make you break a sweat, so you can practise it in office attire in an empty boardroom, and yet, it still provides feelings of wellbeing and euphoria equivalent to what one might expect after a long, strenuous run. In addition, Tai Chi burns nearly as many calories, and offers the same cardiovascular benefits, as many forms of moderate aerobic exercise. Perhaps most important of all, it is exceptionally pleasurable – and the slow, smooth movements teach us patience, thereby providing a much-needed balance for our normally speedy pace of living.

Although there are numerous modes of physical training that significantly benefit our health, the vast majority of these, however rewarding, are also strenuous and often require tolerating a degree of pain, or monotony, to get the desired results.

This is why so many of us can be exceptionally enthusiastic at the start of a new training regime, when our interest is high, but as our motivation level and willpower gradually diminish, we often find ourselves no longer prepared to tolerate the effort required to continue. As a consequence, training comes to a halt until our enthusiasm is again rekindled by another form of training that hooks our interest anew – hence the never-ending arrival of new exercise fads.

However, Tai Chi, and also Qigong, are very different in this respect, because both tend to become lifelong practices for anyone fortunate enough to set foot on this path. There are several reasons why this is the case, but perhaps the most important is that after a fairly short period of time, both Tai Chi and Qigong soon become enormously satisfying, due to the fact that as practice continues, pleasurable feelings steadily intensify and self-awareness expands on multidimensional levels of our being, positively affecting all areas of our existence.

Tai Chi – which can be written in several different ways, including ‘T’ai Ch’i’ and ‘Taiji’ – means ‘Supreme Ultimate’. The full name for this discipline is ‘Tai Chi Chuan’, sometimes written as ‘T’ai Ch’i Ch’uan’ or ‘Taijiquan’, and it means ‘Supreme Ultimate Fist’ (Chuan/Quan = Fist). This name encompasses two separate notions. The first part, ‘Tai Chi’, reflects the philosophical/spiritual basis of the discipline, which is deeply rooted in the Chinese philosophy of Daoism (sometimes written as ‘Taoism’), and the second part, ‘Chuan’, represents the martial expression of this Daoist-based discipline.

More specifically, ‘Tai Chi’ refers to the ultimate unified state of being that is a consequence of the perfect, spontaneous, dynamic balance between the forces of Yin-Yang – the mutually interactive, interdependent polarities that comprise and fundamentally influence the essential nature of all forms in the universe.

Tai Chi Chuan is the physical embodiment of this Yin-Yang principle and as such it is intended to represent the harmonious balance between these seemingly opposing forces. Whenever the movements of Tai Chi effectively express this balance between Yin-Yang, this leads to a deep sense of flow and oneness with all existence, and this is perhaps most clearly manifested when the soft, smooth, flowing motions are applied in a martial context.

Tai Chi is classed as ‘internal’ because it relies not on raw muscle power or a forceful, violent manner, but on calm, focused intention, energy control and extreme proprioceptive sensitivity. These ‘internal’ qualities allow the practitioner to deal with an attack not with strength, but with a softness that yields to an attacker’s incoming force until it runs out or can safely be redirected.

Nowadays, however, this martial art is often performed simply as a form of ‘Slow-Motion Moving Meditation’ for improving health, fitness and wellbeing and, as such, it can appropriately be called Tai Chi, but not Tai Chi Chuan, since the latter name is only appropriate if the internal power and energy generated is integrated with its martial applications.

Aside from actual combat, martial skills can also effectively be developed via the Tai Chi Chuan practice known as ‘push hands’, in which two people face each other and, remaining connected at the forearms, push one another using circular motions of the arms while transferring their body weight back and forth.

Push hands is said to be an ultimate means for Tai Chi Chuan students to develop proprioceptive and touch sensitivity since it allows them, experientially, to understand the martial aspects of this internal discipline, which are leverage, reflex, sensitivity, timing, coordination and positioning. The practice allows a student to develop ‘ting jing’ (listening power), the sensitivity to feel the direction and strength of a partner’s intention, which helps to undo a person’s natural instinct to resist force with force that is typical of the less skilled mode of response seen in many ‘hard’ (less evolved) martial arts.

The ability to use Tai Chi Chuan as a form of self-defence in combat is considered by many teachers as an ultimate test of a student’s understanding of the art, for ultimately, Tai Chi Chuan is the study of appropriate change in response to external forces and combat offers the perfect arena for testing this skill, which as mentioned earlier, entails sensitively yielding and redirecting incoming attack instead of forcefully blocking or resisting it.

Benefits of Tai Chi (and Qigong)

One of the most fundamental trademarks of Tai Chi is that, unlike most other forms of exercise, Tai Chi will not only enhance the sporting performance of elite athletes, but also, it can be adapted easily to cope with the needs of those who are very old or physically incapacitated: an analysis published online on September 17, 2015, by the British Journal of Sports Medicine clearly indicated that doing Tai Chi enhances the quality of life for people with common chronic conditions.

Researchers analysed data from 33 studies involving nearly 1,600 adults. Most were in their 60s or 70s, and all had one or more of the following chronic conditions: osteoarthritis, breast cancer, heart failure, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

All 290 participants in the breast cancer studies were women. There were 452 women (85% of participants) in the arthritis studies, 76 (16%) in the heart failure studies, and 92 (19%) in the COPD studies.

All the studies were randomised and controlled: they compared people who did Tai Chi with those who either did another type of exercise or were waiting to join a Tai Chi class. Overall, people who did Tai Chi showed greater improvements in walking, muscle strength and quality of life.

Tai Chi also dramatically improves balance and, according to some studies, significantly reduces falls among older people. Proprioception — the ability to sense the position of one’s body in space — declines with age. Tai Chi is exceptionally useful for training this sense, which is a function of sensory neurons in the inner ear and stretch receptors in the muscles and ligaments.

Stanwood Chang, a Tai Chi instructor at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, part of Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, states in reference to this capacity: “By far the greatest benefit for older adults is a reduction in falls… the slow, deliberate footwork brings more awareness to the soles of the feet, not only in terms of touch sensitivity of foot to the floor, but also in awareness to changes in the ankle angle and weight distribution… It’s like practising tightrope walking on the ground. You’re practising your balance and you’re teaching your body to be more sensitive and have greater strength.”

In addition, Tai Chi increases muscle strength and flexibility, which makes it easier to recover from a stumble, and regular practice has also been shown to improve physical function in people with severe knee osteoarthritis, and to slow the progression of ankylosing spondylitis, a painful and debilitating inflammatory form of arthritis.

In addition it frequently reduces the pain that is typically experienced by fibromyalgia patients; in one trial, for example, 66 people with fibromyalgia were randomised into two groups: one group took Tai Chi classes twice a week; the other group attended wellness education and stretching sessions twice a week. After 12 weeks, those in the Tai Chi group reported less pain, fewer depression symptoms and better sleep than the control group. The results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Peter M. Wayne, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Tai Chi and Mind-Body Research Program at Harvard Medical School’s Osher Research Centre, asserts: “A growing body of carefully conducted research is building a compelling case for Tai Chi as an adjunct to standard medical treatment for the prevention and rehabilitation of many conditions commonly associated with age… Tai Chi strengthens both the lower and upper extremities and also the core muscles of the back and abdomen.”

The low postures included in the Tai Chi form increase the body’s demand and consumption of oxygen, and clinical studies in China have shown that it lowers blood pressure. In one Peking study, a group of over-50-year-olds practising Tai Chi was compared with a control group that did not. Results showed that the Tai Chi practitioners had substantially lower blood pressure. The conclusion was that this was due to the deep muscular relaxation stimulated by Tai Chi, which diminished vasomotor activity in the cerebral cortex and caused a dilation of the blood vessels, thereby reducing blood pressure.

It is important to note at this stage, that particularly in the case of Shibashi, which is a Qigong form choreographed fundamentally from classic Tai Chi postures, that the beneficial effects revealed by all the controlled medical studies of Tai Chi Chuan can also be attributed to the practice of Shibashi.

Tai Chi and Alzheimer’s disease

A recent research study on the effects of Tai Chi on the brain published its results in the June 19, 2012 issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease under the title ‘Tai Chi Increases Brain Size and Benefits Cognition in Randomized Controlled Trial of Chinese Elderly’. It revealed that practising Tai Chi can increase the brain size and results in improvements in several cognitive tests that may reduce the probability of getting Alzheimer’s Disease or delay its onset. The study was an eight-month randomised and controlled trial of 120 non-demented, senior (60–79) Chinese citizens from Shanghai. The 120 people were divided into four groups: a Tai Chi group where the participants had three sessions per week – each session consisted of 20 minutes of warm-up exercises, 20 minutes of Tai Chi practice, and ten minutes of cool-down exercises – a walking group; a social interaction group; and a no interaction group.

Two MRIs were obtained for each participant, one before the study and one after the 40-week study. A neuropsychological battery of tests was administered at the start of the study, at 20 weeks and at 40 weeks.

Research results: the Tai Chi group achieved the best results in the three main tests listed below and also registered improvements in other evaluations, including the Auditory Verbal Learning Test, the Verbal Fluency Test, the Initiation Score, Attention Score and Memory Score.

Brain size: the no interaction group’s brain size shrank. The walking group’s brain size shrank as well, but not as much. The social interaction group’s brain size grew, but the growth was not as much as the Tai Chi group’s growth.

Mattis Dementia Rating Scale (which is designed to measure and track mental status in adults with cognitive health): the no interaction group and the walking group had no change in this scale. The social interaction group had some improvement, and the Tai Chi group had a significant improvement.

Trail-making tests, which are used to detect several cognitive impairments such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia: the no interaction group took more time to complete the task. Both the social interaction group and the walking group had no change in time. The Tai Chi group became ‘sharper’ and used less time.

Tai Chi as a path to enlightenment

Tai Chi includes a process called ‘single form practice’, which is popular with serious students of Tai Chi – which epitomises what we are essentially doing during our entire Tai Chi practice. In single form practice, we choose one particular movement which is continually repeated for up to one hour, and with regular practice over extended periods of time, we steadily attain progressively deeper levels of relaxation.

At first, for some weeks, this relaxation occurs purely on the physical level, as muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints release and open, allowing our blood circulation and life force to flow more freely. However, eventually, as this physical process of relaxation deepens, it penetrates long-held bodily contractions, often unconscious ‘historical stresses’ caused by old physical and emotional traumas that have never been released and which have negatively affected our entire being. Over time, the physical, emotional and ‘spiritual’ release this process provides can free us from a lifetime of accumulated stresses and long-held negative attitudes and emotions that have prevented us from enjoying the potentially pleasurable moments of our existence.

So, one of the potential results of Tai Chi practice is that we reach a deeper and more lucid understanding not only of each specific movement, but also of the changes that go on in the entire body, mind, emotions and even spirit. In this sense, one could say that Tai Chi has a ‘spiral’ structure, in that we begin with a preliminary, superficial understanding of the form and of ourselves, which gradually, via the application of our proprioceptive/kinaesthetic awareness, leads to continually deeper insights on multidimensional levels of being, that result in a revision of our movements and our general attitude and behaviour, that allows for an even deeper proprioceptive penetration of the form, which in turn leads to further insights and so on.

What is happening is that the continual correcting of our form and deepening of our bodily awareness simultaneously has a ‘ripple effect’, which releases contractions on all levels of our being, thereby improving our insight into all areas of our existence on increasingly deeper levels. This can lead to a profound understanding of our own Being – the truth of who we are – and an understanding of the meaning of Being as a whole, for although rarely mentioned in the existing literature on Tai Chi, as one’s sensory awareness of the ‘internal Qi/life force’ increases, one also tends simultaneously to experience a deepening awareness of the Qi energy that is all around us. When this happens, we may undergo a spiritual ‘awakening’ that allows us to sense the connection/unity between our own life force and that of all living beings. Some people experience this as a spiritual realisation of the oneness of divine presence that connects all forms in existence.

Tai Chi Chuan today

More recently, there has been some divergence in the world of Tai Chi. Some practitioners believe that Tai Chi is first and foremost a martial art; that demonstrating an ability to apply the self-defence aspects of Tai Chi is the best test of a student’s knowledge and skill in Tai Chi and that these martial applications are indispensable for understanding and incorporating the fundamental principles of Tai Chi in one’s form, which is essential if one wishes to gain the maximum potential health benefits from one’s practice.

Others are utterly unconcerned with the health or martial aspects of the form and their motives for learning Tai Chi are perhaps similar to those of a ballroom dancer, who practises for fun, or for its aesthetic appeal, or merely in order to earn points in competition.

Finally, there are practitioners who are only interested in the physical and psychological health benefits that Tai Chi offers.

The main traditional Tai Chi Chuan ‘family’ schools prefer to present their teachings in a martial art context, but with a focus on its healing potentials, since they believe the two aspects of health and martial arts are mutually dependent: ‘the Yin and Yang’ of Tai Chi Chuan.

However, in the last 20 years or so, Tai Chi Chuan classes that purely emphasise health have become the most popular approach among hospitals, clinics and community and senior centres where Tai Chi is an optional therapy. This has occurred as the baby boomer generation has aged and Tai Chi’s reputation as a low-stress training method for seniors has become better known.

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