Originating in ancient China, tai chi is an effective exercise for health of mind and body. Although an art with great depth of knowledge and skill, it can be easy to learn and soon delivers its health benefits. For many, it continues as a lifetime journey. There are many styles and forms of tai chi, the major ones being Chen, Yang, Wu, another Wu (actually two different words in Chinese) and Sun. Each style has its own unique features, although most styles share similar essential principles.
These essential principles include the mind being integrated with the body; fluidity of movement; control of breathing; and mental concentration. The central focus is to enable the qi or life force to flow smoothly and powerfully throughout the body. Total harmony of the inner and outer self comes from the integration of mind and body, achieved through the ongoing practice of tai chi.
Here’s to your health
Medical and fitness authorities stress that effective exercise for health should include three components: cardio-vascular fitness or stamina, muscular strength, and flexibility.
Cardio-vascular fitness means better heart-lung capacity. A good supply of blood and oxygen is essential for maintaining your health and for healing any disease.
In 1996, a study was carried out involving 126 post-heart attack patients. They were randomly assigned to participate in a tai chi class, an aerobic exercise class or a non-exercise support group. The patients from the tai chi group came out with better cardiovascular fitness and lower blood pressure than patients from the non-exercise group. To top it off, 80 percent of the people in the tai chi group kept up the practice of tai chi while the non-exercise support group retained only 10 percent of its original membership. The aerobic group retained less of its members than the tai chi group and their diastolic blood pressure did not improve.
Since then many other studies have confirmed the efficacy of tai chi for cardio-vascular fitness.
By strengthening our muscles, we keep our joints stable and protected. Of course, we need our muscles to move and when we move, the muscles pump fluid and blood throughout the body, improving the functions not only of the organs and joints but also the entire body.
Many well-known sports heroes suffer from osteoarthritis resulting from injuries. Yet, they are able to perform at their peak level because their strong muscles protect their joints and reduce the pain of osteoarthritis. After they retire from active sports, however, and their training lapses, their muscles weaken. Arthritis flares up. Perhaps we can conclude that had they taken up tai chi upon retirement they would have stayed in shape and enjoyed a healthier, happier retirement.
Flexibility improves our range of motion, making us more functional. Being flexible keeps our joints, muscles – our entire body – healthy and allows us to be more active. Jim, a 56-year-old retired fireman, is a good example of how tai chi can improve flexibility. Because of an on-the-job injury, Jim couldn’t lift his arms any higher than his shoulders. Otherwise healthy, he experienced ongoing frustration. He couldn’t reach up to cupboards; he couldn’t paint his house; he couldn’t even reach a book on a shelf above his head. Jim had given up hope of ever returning to normal. Then, simply to get exercise, he took up tai chi. Within six months, normal flexibility had returned to his shoulder joints. His life changed. He could reach.
In addition to these three main components of healthy exercise, tai chi also improves posture, an important component of health. Developing correct posture will result in less wear and tear of the joint muscles. When your posture is upright, the lung space is larger. Try taking a deep breath and expanding your chest. You’ll notice that there’s more space in the chest. Now try to hunch. The space in your chest diminishes, doesn’t it? As you can see, the body works better in an upright posture.
Shirley suffered from lower back pain and sciatica problems for some time before she started doing tai chi. Tai chi really helped her. “I think part of the reason I got better was that tai chi strengthened my back muscles and made me conscious of keeping good posture throughout the day,” she says. “I don’t slouch any more. It has really made a difference.”
Good posture in turn promotes better balance, thus preventing falls and the resulting injuries. Shirley goes on to say, “Tai chi has also strengthened my ankles. I was twisting and spraining them once or twice a year. Now, between my stronger ankles and better posture, I enjoy better balance, and as I get older, I’ll be less likely to fall.”
The mind is the most important aspect of health. It’s a universally accepted fact that the mind controls the body. Surely you’ve heard of people overcoming disabilities because of their positive attitudes and strong minds? And tai chi, as one of the most powerful mind-body exercises, teaches the student to be aware of the intrinsic energy from which he or she can perceive greater self-control and empowerment.
Almost everyone who practises tai chi recognizes its powerful effect on relaxation and concentration. Take Joanne, for example. About 10 years ago while driving, she was clipped by a van running a red light. She suffered seven pinched nerves between her skull and her coccyx. Her frequent business travel didn’t help. For years she lived in pain.
Finally, a chiropractor suggested she try tai chi. “A six-week introductory course was enough to get me hooked,” says Joanne. “I found that, even in that short time, what we were doing was enough to help me start to relax, and that meant my back was finally getting a chance to heal.”
You don’t have to have sustained an injury to benefit from tai chi-produced relaxation. Tai chi simply offers a tool to help you cope with busy, modern-day life by appreciating the tranquillity and the nature around you.
Going hand-in-hand with relaxation is the alleviation of stress. As a high-energy businessperson, Joanne has truly benefited from her eight years of tai chi. “Physically, I can handle stress a lot better than I used to. I’m now aware much earlier when I’m responding to stress and can react appropriately. That means I don’t end up with tight shoulders and headaches.
“Mentally, I find that overall I handle people and stressful situations differently. I’m more inclined to sit back, listen, and evaluate a situation than I used to be,” she continues. “I make much more use of energy and try to be sensitive to other people’s energy to assess their state of mind and body. That’s tremendously helpful in dealing with difficult people and situations.”
In this context, the term “spirit” refers to simply feeling good and positive rather than “spirit” in the sense of religious or occult. For instance, “Hey, today I’m in good spirits.” Or, “Today I’m happy.” It’s usually not easy to control your mood or your spirit with your conscious mind. If it were easy, depression wouldn’t be so common, nor would it be so hard for doctors to treat. The spirit and mood is largely controlled by the subconscious mind, which has an immense power to control us. For instance, you know you’re depressed, and although you dislike the condition, you can’t seem to get out of this mental state.
The daily stress, negativity and destructive emotion accumulate to dampen our spirit, whereas when we’re close to nature, for example, or involved in a cultural activity, our psychic energy gets in balance. All too often, fast-paced Western society tips the balance to the negative side. In fact, in Western society more than 50 percent of diseases presented to doctors are caused by mind-related problems, such as stress.
The spirit is also often meant a form of community spirit that one sees something more important than the self.
Tai chi can help. The ancient Chinese were aware of the immense power of the mind/spirit. Tai chi aims to achieve harmony with nature and the balance of mental serenity and physical strength. Having better balance calms the unconscious mind.
Enhancing the qi-vital life energy-during tai chi practice is the path to uplifting the spirit. The qi is simply a life energy within all living beings. For humans, our minds can learn to enhance qi, which in turn, connects with the unconscious mind to enhance our mental attitude. Qi grows when the person is well balanced and in harmony. Once your body is relaxed and calm, and your mind receptive, your qi will begin to circulate. And that will start your spirits soaring.