The anecdotal evidence that practicing Tai Chi is good for health has been confirmed by a number of studies. In recent years even ACC began sponsoring Tai Chi classes for the elderly. Having studied, practiced and taught Tai Chi for 15 years I’d like to share some of my understanding of how Tai Chi works to benefit health.
Mental focus and body awareness
Tai Chi is a mindful form of exercise and deliberate focusing of attention is an essential part of doing Tai Chi. The mind and the body must work together. This is perhaps the most challenging and the most frequently overlooked aspect of Tai Chi practice. Without mental focus Tai Chi is not much more than a slow dance.
Deliberately focusing the mind makes it sharper. The practitioner learns to be less distracted, their attention becomes more focused and able to discern finer details. Focusing on the movement leads to increased awareness of the body – ability to sense the body from the inside.
Posture and alignment
Better awareness of the body means that the practitioner can feel when their body is out of balance, before this imbalance manifests as pain or injury. Tai Chi offers a set of guiding principles for efficient and natural movement. According to these principles, the movement is most effective and requires the least effort when the joints are within their natural range of motion and when all parts of the body are harmoniously aligned.
Tai Chi students learn how to adopt a balanced posture and practice maintaining it through various movements, gradually forming better postural and movement habits. Balanced posture, better alignment and correct use of the joints tends to reduce back, neck and joint pain.
Relaxation and blood circulation
Most of the chronic muscular tension is caused by postural imbalance – when the muscles have to constantly do extra work to keep the misaligned body upright. When the posture is balanced and centered, most of the body weight is supported by the bones. This allows the muscles to relax.
Muscles that are constantly contracted or tense can restrict blood flow both during activity and during rest. When a muscle naturally alternates between relaxation and contraction, it can act as a small pump that promotes blood flow during physical activity, and does not restrict circulation during rest. Blood nourishes everything inside the body and many health problems past a certain age are related to insufficient blood circulation. Restoring and promoting healthy blood circulation can alleviate symptoms of these conditions and promote overall wellbeing.
Balance and coordination
Tai Chi exercises are designed to create “balance habits” – to teach the body how to automatically respond when it is losing balance. After working on these exercises Tai Chi practitioners begin to sense their balance through the legs, as opposed to relying primarily on their vision.
Aside from improving balance, Tai Chi movements involve precise coordination between the arms, torso and legs and generally improve overall physical ability. Students report greater ease of movement, ability to walk longer distances without strain and better performance in sports activities. A major benefit for the elderly is fall prevention.
Calmness and inner peace
The requirement to focus on the movement while doing Tai Chi cultivates the practitioner’s ability to “be in the present moment”. In other words, to be able to temporarily put all the problems and worries aside, to be “here and now” and deal with other problems when their time comes. People who struggle with this at night often report better sleep.
Tai Chi practice also cultivates patience because it requires patience. Becoming more patient, more focused and more centered often affects personality, gradually turning Tai Chi practitioners into more calm and peaceful people.
What does it take?
Tai Chi is not magic, it is logical and methodical. First thing is to know the method, so a teacher who understands the intricacies of Tai Chi (as opposed to only showing the movements) is necessary. Teaching quality varies greatly.
Knowing an effective method will not produce any results by itself. The second element is investment of time to apply the method. A commitment to practice at home for 10-20 minutes every day is absolutely necessary for results.
The third final ingredient is willingness to face challenges and persevere. Tai Chi practice is enjoyable most of the time. But some days the mind is distracted and this can make practicing difficult or even boring. Students who don’t like challenges or come to class with a passive “do it to me” attitude often don’t persevere long enough to get results.
In my experience it takes several months of learning and practicing to start getting into Tai Chi and feeling its positive effects. People who expect to feel amazing after 3 classes miss a great opportunity. It is important to remember that all lasting positive changes require some time and effort.
Tai Chi class open day
If you are interested to try Tai Chi in a local non-commercial class, we have an open day on the first Wednesday of each month when all newcomers are welcome to come and try it out. You can find out more on the web site: click here
PUBLISHED IN OCT 2014 ISSUE OF LAINGHOLM ROUNDABOUT.