In this country, our cultural propensity is to engage in stenuous, high-intensity activity as our primary form of exercise. The general consensus is, the harder, faster, and more intense an exercise is, the better it is for us. While studies are now showing the tremendous benefit of short burst, high-intensity, interval training and its effect on human metabolism and stress reduction, there are also other points to consider. If exercising were graphed on a spectrum, high-intensity exercise is indicative of only one end of that spectrum. On the other end of that spectrum we would find the practice of Tai Chi, which engages exercise in a softer, more refined, internally focused, and relaxed manner to support, augment, and restore our collective health. Like most things in life, its is not a single element or practice that brings us health, but rather, a synergy, balance, and confluence of multiple elements that bring us into dialogue with radiant health. This article is not aiming to criticize or diminish your current exercise practices, but rather to consider the alternative and complementary benefits Tai Chi has to offer you, in addition to your current health and exercise practices.
So how does Tai Chi work? To answer this question, we must first look at some of the core tenets and principles that comprise the practice of Tai Chi:
2) Posture & bio-mechanical structure
3) Intent & Movement
BREATHING: In the practice of Tai Chi, breathing is centralized in the lower abdomen, in an area referred to as the lower dantien ("don-tee-en") in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The core of lower dantien resides in the center of the body, three finger-widths below the belly button, and is better conceptualized as an area rather than a single point. That said, numerous organs, bones, and muscles are influenced by the function of the lower dantien. Some of these are: small intestine, large intestine, bladder, psoas muscle, perenium, anal sphincter, sacrum, pelvis, and lumbar vertabrae.
By breathing and relaxing into this lower abdominal area, this region is better oxygenated and receives improved blood circulation. Given that 95% of the body's seratonin (the body's "feel good" hormone) is produced in the small intestine, increased blood flow and oxygenation into this area of the body is excellent for our physical and emotional health. Practitioners of Tai Chi often report feeling emotionally balanced, content, centered, sporting an improved mood after practice. This is because the enhanced blood and oxygen flow in the lower dantien nourishes the energetics of the small intestine, thus producing "feel good" chemicals in the body. In addition to this, when the small intestine and large intestine are nourished, our processes of digestion and bodily elimination are improved, thus contributing to a cleaner and healthier body.
POSTURE & BIO-MECHANICAL STRUCTURE: A very large piece of Tai Chi practice is learning how to develop a highly sensitive and refined level of proprioception, which is essentailly how "body-sensitive" we are in terms of physical sensation and spatial orientation. By refining our levels of personal proprioception, we become sensitive to the effects posture has on our moods, how pain is often related to poor structure, and how proper bodily structure yields intelligent, effortless, and efficient movement. In the practice of Tai Chi, the emphasis is to take excessive tension out of the musculature, align our bones for optimal structural support, and to let the soft tissues like ligaments, fascia, and tendons, support the bodily weight of our posture. When the body is aligned according to the tenets of Tai Chi, these softer tissues between bones act as "shock absorbers" to our bodies' and create a sense of "springiness" and pliability as we move. As excessive muscular contractions decrease, the body and mind release collective tension, cortisol/stress hormone levels drop, and the central nervous system begins to relax, allowing our bodies to begin to repair themselves as needed.
INTENTION & MOVEMENT: This point is often lost on most people. The notion of "using our intent" is vague at best for most of us, but is at the crux of good Tai Chi practice. In an attempt to bring some basic clairty to this point of confusion, for a moment, gently open and close your hand, going from a fully tensed fist, all the way back to a fully open and relaxed palm. Do this slowly and mindfully. Repeat once more...
Now close your eyes and envision an apple in your mind's eye. Picture it clearly as if you were about to pick it up and eat it...
This time, repeat this same exercise but instead of envisioning an apple in your mind, visualize an orange glowing ball of light in your lower abdomen.
Now ask yourself, how did you do any of these things? The obvious answer you probably hear internally is, "I just did it." These simple exercises point to the nature of intent. It is the unspoken, non-verbal commands we give to our bodies and minds on a daily basis. No words or verbal commands are said to ourselves in our minds to implement the things we wish to do; we simply "do them."
In the practice of Tai Chi, the intent that emits from our brain/central nervous system that signals us to move, is attempted to be felt. As we learn to feel our intent and become more sensitive to it, we begin to refine the energetic quality of our intent through refined breathing, good posture, and the intentional focus of the mind. As we move in Tai Chi, we strive to consciously feel the intention used to make our bodies move. This is not an easy task, but the fruits of this labor are deeply rewarding to our health over time. To feel the "current" of our intention, slow movements are favored over fast ones, because slowness provides a greater sensitivity in our minds and bodily systems. This is why Tai Chi is practiced in a slow and deliberate manner.
Imagine pulling a band-aid off very slowly or very quickly. Which is going to make you more aware of the individual hair follicles slowly being pulled from the skin? This analogy also points to why some people struggle emotionally with the practice of Tai Chi as well, because as we move slowly, we are confronted with our emotions as we scan and move through our interior landscape. All too often, both beginners and devout practitioners get wrapped up in looking "deep and spiritual" as they move slowly through their Tai Chi form, focusing on the aesthetic beauty of the form, rather than honing in on the functional medicine the movements provide. This is not to downplay the grace and beauty present in Tai Chi because more often than not, people actually take up the practice of Tai Chi based on the beauty they see when Tai Chi is performed, myself included. However, beauty and grace in Tai Chi cannot supercede the health benefits found in Tai Chi. We come to Tai Chi to build and restore health. If our alignments are good, our posture natural, and our breathing sound, grace and beauty come naturally. We must all be brought back to a simple truth: the slow movements of Tai Chi are wholly functional and should be practiced attentively and mindfully. Beauty and grace are a by-product of this process.
In addition to all this, the movements found in Tai Chi are designed to stimulate enregetic flow in the organ meridian pathways used in acupuncture. The points used in acupuncture to treat various ailments are stimulated and internally "massaged" during good Tai Chi practice. In a sense, the practice of Tai Chi can be likened to a form "self-administered acupuncture." For the sake of ease and simplicity, the mechanics of acupuncture pathway stimulation in Tai Chi movements will be reserved for a separate article.
While the above mentioned is only the very tip of a very large Tai Chi iceberg, these points are foundational elements as to how and why Tai Chi works.
Happy training, everbody. Be well.