When I began practicing Tai Chi in 1991 the thing that struck me about it was its power or at least the promise of its power. What I went on to witness and discover was that there was nothing mystical or particularly esoteric about the power of tai chi it was more just a case of doing it, following Tai Chi’s unique set of principles and just witnessing what arose within me. When I practice my form (sequence of movements) it is never exactly the same but it is always beneficial.
Tai Chi means “the supreme ultimate” and Chuan means, “fist” so Tai Chi Chuan is in fact a martial art despite its reputation for just being a gentle meditative exercise. When practiced as a martial art Tai Chi is both effective and powerful (but this takes a lot of practice to even glimpse especially when you learn that in Tai Chi, the main focus is to use the power of the mind in unison with the energy and power of the body to release force in whatever direction you want).
The benefits of Tai Chi are immense and include improved co-ordination, circulation, posture, balance, and well-being. Because tai chi is practiced slowly and with a relaxed focus the nervous system becomes calmer and so do you. This meditative effect gives you a clearer perspective mentally and in today’s fast and hectic world this can only be a huge resource. In fact, the stress-relieving attributes are one of the main reasons why people start Tai Chi as it gives them a calm mind and a real sense of physical emotional, and spiritual health.
Tai Chi started a long time ago so it’s had time to develop and evolve into what we see today. This slow process of change which has happened to tai chi over the centuries is mirrored in the way tai chi is practiced i.e. at a meditative pace with no rush to complete it’s intricate and engrossing movements. The softness and flow of tai chi make you relax (you just can’t help it!) but it’s a rejuvenating kind of relaxation. At the end of a Tai Chi class, people are buzzing with Qi (life-force), as the practice encourages your energy to flow and tension and blockages just seem to dissolve away. It all sounds very blissful and beautiful, which it is but you do have to put a little effort in to get the results. It’s hard to get your head around that something so graceful and elegant can be used for self-defense too, but then again there is an old Chinese saying that “the best fighters never fight” i.e. if you have no enemies internally or externally then there is no need for conflict. The philosophy behind Tai Chi (Taoism) is really useful too and includes the theory that if you fight force with force any conflict will get worse. It teaches yielding and flexibility to overcome any situation. This can diffuse a situation leaving room for negotiation and dialogue. When you take something like that into your daily life then you have gained a distinct advantage. Yielding encourages listening and when you listen you gain more information and it is easier to see where someone is coming from. In the workplace, such a strategy would create less stress for everyone!
Part of the physiological aspect of tai chi includes the effect it has on our brain, our lymphatic system, and our joints. Recent neurological research has found that tai chi practice encourages the brain to perform more effectively. This is partly due to the brain receiving more oxygenated blood (as the breathing technique in tai chi improves lung capacity and elasticity) but also because the meditative, calming effect of tai chi changes the brain’s frequency from beta (active normal waking waves) to alpha (receptive between sleep and awake waves which are related to improved ability to learn and remember). The lymphatic system is partly responsible for detoxifying the blood and is stimulated by the gentle muscular work in tai chi. The soft relaxed movements of Tai Chi massage the lymph nodes improving their function and boosting the immune system. The joints of the body are often where aches and pains first creep in so maintaining healthy active joints is important at any age. Because the load-bearing joints of the body are kept in strong alignment throughout Tai Chi and are never abused nor greatly impacted upon, their health and function are protected whilst the circulation of blood in and around the joints is increased.
All in all Tai Chi offers us a unique way to combat stress and learn new and valuable skills.