Tai chi is an ancient exercise art of health building, power development and inward advancement. A holistic art, tai chi has centuries of evidence showing that it can meld the mind, body and spirit into one. The goals of tai chi are multidimensional with a strong emphasis on how to keep your body as young as possible as you go through each phase of your life.
A class in tai chi is geared towards boosting your level of health. This is achieved through deliberate, slowed down movements which strongly affect the nervous system and tendons. Tai chi movements are designed to decompress your spine and create space inside your torso and joints. For a western culture that does almost everything in a sitting position (eating, driving, computing, socialising, watching TV), learning how to do this is vital for reversing the effects of gravity on posture.
Tai chi is meditative and belongs to a series of east Asian derived exercise systems that are health strengthening. Tai chi is beneficial to everyone, especially those with chronic fatigue conditions like adrenal fatigue-burnout. For these people, doing gym work can be too draining on their already stressed bodies and low energy systems. In China, tai chi is well known for its ability to turn a weak, sick body into a strong, healthy body that is bursting with energy for life. Tai chi is also known for its ability to turn an already strong and healthy body into a supercharged and supremely fit and healthy body that is full of reserve energy. The bottom line when it comes to western fitness programs is that the body needs to already have a good level of energy to begin with. Long term fitness can only be built upon a foundation of robust health. How this foundation is built is where tai chi has specialised knowledge and can add to the already large volume of rehabilitation knowledge.
Tai chi uses the same philosophies and theories as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Some people even refer to tai chi as the physiotherapy of traditional Chinese medicine. The definitions of health are different between the eastern and western cultures. ‘Healthy’ in the west is considered as someone who is not currently sick, is fit, has little body fat and test results that fall within a normal reference range. The TCM definition of health is a body that allows energy to freely move throughout the whole system. This definition of health includes having balanced emotions, joints that move freely, no internal organ problems, even internal pressures, and blood that moves powerfully throughout the body.
Tai chi culture, with its goal of preserving the youthfulness of the body, mind and energy, has a primary principle of balance. Physical balance comes with leg strength and practise of the tai chi movements, but it is the ability to continually discover your own balance inside the way you live your life that is the real lesson and jewel of tai chi training, balancing energy in and energy out, activity with recuperative rest. Our western culture has an addiction to constant movement. It subliminally asserts that: to be busy and doing something is meritorious and moving forward. This is great until your fuel tank is running on empty. Illness and pain creep into a life of endless outward energy expression. There is no way a proper balance can be achieved. Balance is always where health, restoration, calmness and wisdom will be found. Tai chi exercise has been built upon this premise.
Virtually everything we do consumes energy and few things replenish our deep energy reserves. Working, paying attention in traffic, prolonged stress, deadlines, cooking, cleaning, even watching TV all consume energy and very few things we do actually give us energy in return. Tai chi exercise is designed to give you more energy than you expend practising it. It is akin to putting money into your savings account. Over time you can build your energetic wealth. When you feel tired you can do something healthy about it within ten minutes rather than grabbing the closest can of red bull.
Many tai chi practitioners liken the energising effect of a tai chi session to the replenishing effect of being in the forest or near the ocean, only stronger. Tai chi not only releases stress in a similar way to being in nature but it will strengthen your nervous system as well. People in burnout jobs find that they can handle the workload much better than those previously in that role.
When all the effects of stress are looked at and squashed down into its most simplistic form, stress is about constriction. It makes you feel compressed, tight and closed off. Blood vessels in the limbs and some vital organs are also constricted. The very nature of tai chi is relaxation and openness. Just doing it decompresses the person physically, mentally and emotionally. For many this new avenue of decompression is exactly what they needed.
For chronic pain sufferers, tai chi is a blessing for its ability to offset pain for hours after a session. New research on pain has found that there is no one pain centre in the brain. The sensation of something not being right is sent to many regions of the brain including areas concerned with memory, emotion and threat. The more an injury threatens your lifestyle, especially your ability to make money and support yourself, the more it will assign to the sensations it is being sent as being a major pain in that area of the body.
Retraining the brain to move in a completely new way is a tool that is used by physiotherapists and psychologists to teach the body that certain movements are not threatening and therefore less pain provocative. Tai chi is perfect for this kind of retraining. It is slow, it is mindful and it has built within the exercises ways of lessening mechanical stress in the painful areas.
I love western exercise. Sport, and weight lifting have been an important and very positive part of my entire life. I have been involved in the rehabilitation of soft tissue injuries for 16 years also. I have a sound understanding of tissue injury, anatomy and exercise physiology. Western fitness training and injury rehabilitation can correct most problems thrown at it. However, with 20 years of personal research and experience in eastern exercise methods such as tai chi and meditation, I can say with certainty-that tai chi can add important, often overlooked ways of training the human nervous system. This is a profound point, seeing that the nervous system controls virtually every aspect of our physiology: muscles do what the nervous system tells them to do, joints are controlled by the way the nervous system patterns the muscles, tendons, ligaments and connective tissue to act around them. The dilation and constriction of blood vessels is completely controlled by the nervous system, as are the release of stress and relaxation hormones into the blood stream in response to emotion and memories.
Most people can increase their physical strength within minutes by enhancing movement patterns-the way they move and use their bodies. The latest explosion of exercise rehabilitation is in teaching people how to simply move better within their chosen sports. It is about working with whole body movements. This simply requires the use of specific cues to enable the athlete to more completely access the strength they already have e.g. screw open the little toe as if attempting to wrap it around your outer heel when squatting; improve your lifting strength by bending from the hip not the lower back to engage the gluteal muscles more fully. Creaky or painful knees often stop creaking and eliminate pain with such an adjustment to squatting movements. Many daily activities involve a squating type movement, such as bending to pick up washing, scrubbing the bathtub and getting up from that deep, comfy couch.
In China, prior to 1928, a master of tai chi was known as a possessor of invincible self defence skills. Tai chi was found to be so effective for improving the health of the people who practised it that the Chinese government made it the national exercise system. 200 million people practise tai chi in China. It is a major player in preventing their health care system from collapsing. The focus of most tai chi classes is upon its health and meditation aspects, although some classes have more of a self defence aim. Irrespective of what a beginning tai chi practitioner wants from the training, the health focus is always the first route that must be mastered.
Tai chi is a lot of things, it is a complete exploration into the calm mindfulness talked about by deep meditators and the latest psychological texts, it can be expressed as self defence, a capsule of life enhancing philosophical knowledge, with strong links to traditional Chinese medicine. Tai chi is a time tested ancient combination of all of these things that still works just as well in our modern world.
Try this exercise to aid in moving the important fluids throughout the body. This twisting exercise frees up every joint in the body. It especially powers up the lower internal organs and meridian lines such the bladder, genitals, intestines and kidneys. It is great to perform in the morning to loosen the stiffness from sleeping. Your spine will love you for it!
- Bend your knees and hips as if sitting on a bar stool. Keep your spine vertical and weight evenly balanced in the front and back of the feet.
- Imagine balancing a book on the crown of your head to provide a gentle ‘lift’ throughout the spine.
- Slowly begin turning the hips side to side and allowing the waist and arms to follow the turn. Let the arms swing like ropes with a light weight attached.
- Let the arm gently tap into your abdomen and small of your back. Aim to use minimal strength to do this. Continue for 3 minutes.
Top Illustration: Lexi Keelan