Trying to qualify the effects and benefits of Chinese medical practices (herbalism, acupuncture, chi-gung or tai chi) within the context of Western medicine is as difficult as trying to do the reverse. Both medical traditions are based on a different set of principles, perspectives and approaches.
Chinese medicine reflects a more holistic approach, and tries to deal with the body, mind and spirit of a patient rather than individual symptoms. However there are a number of Western medical studies of tai chi available, which indicate that when learned correctly and performed regularly, tai chi can be a positive part of an overall approach to improving your health. The benefits of tai chi include:
- Decreased stress and anxiety
- Increased aerobic capacity
- Increased energy and stamina
- Increased flexibility, balance and agility
- Increased muscle strength and definition
There is also some evidence that indicates that tai chi also may help enhance the quality of sleep, enhance the immune system, lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure, improve joint pain, improve symptoms of congestive heart failure, improve overall well-being in older adults and reduce risk of falls in older adults.
Harvard Medical School published studies on tai chi in 2006 and 2009, since then there have been a number of supporting Western medical organisations that have published research on tai chi; including the University of Maryland Medical Center, the NHS in the UK and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the US.
In 2012 David Bendall at the www.taichiresearch.com organisation published a summary of the results of a number of studies into tai chi and provided further advice and guidance.
The foundational principles of tai chi were written in a collection of writings called the tai chi classics. Some of these pages were found in a corner of a salt store near the Chen village in China in the nineteenth century. The tai chi classics are the historical wisdom of the old masters that in a very cryptic way tell us what we should include within our practice.
Nowhere in the classics, beyond the 13 postures, are the names of the various tai chi techniques, movements and methods mentioned. We are only given generalised taoist chi gung principles, philosophical concepts, and fighting strategies. Even the original 13 postures mentioned in the classics are not presented as specific how-to instructions; rather they refer to general internal energy principles.
Some examples of writings contained within the classics include;
in motion the whole body should be light and agile, with all parts of the body linked as if threaded together.
~ t’ai chi ch’uan ching (attributed to chang san-feng c.1279-1386)
tai chi comes from wu chi and is the mother of yin and yang. In motion tai chi separates; in stillness yin and yang fuse and return to wu chi.
~ treatise on tai chi chuan (attributed to wang tsung-yueh)
when moving, there is no place that does not move. when still, there is no place that is not still. first seek extension, then contraction;
then it can be fine and subtle.
~ insights into the practice of the thirteen postures (wu yu-hsiang)
pay attention to the waist at all times; completely relax the abdomen and the chi rises up. When the tailbone is centered and straight, the spirit goes through to the headtop. To make the whole body light and agile suspend the headtop. Carefully study. Extension and contraction, opening and closing, should all be natural.
~ song of the thirteen postures (unknown)
Tai chi developed in China as a very effective martial art, as well as a detailed medical and meditative system. When it is referred to as a marital art it is often called tai chi chuan (grand ultimate fist). In practice you do not have to be a martial arts expert to gain tai chi’s benefits, and the process to become proficient at using tai chi as a martial art is not a quick one.
In China it is recognised that tai chi can be done by anyone; male and female, young and old, strong and weak, healthy or ill. Originally, the practitioners of tai chi became renown within China for their exceptional fighting ability, rather than for the health and energy aspects of tai chi. However, as one tai chi master was fond of saying, “everybody wants to be healthy, only some people want to learn how to fight”
yeah ok…..those crazy taoists liked to give the tai chi movements some funny names; repulse the monkey, needle at the sea bottom, single whip etc. But one of these tai chi movements called Cloud Hands can also be done as an introductory chi gung exercise – to learn how to coordinate and connect the left and right sides of the body, understand the proper body alignments when shifting your body weight, and to help develop tan tien awareness as well as leg-spine connection.
As a self-contained chi-gung exercise it is highly effective; allowing someone with limited practice time available to not only learn core physical alignments, but also to benefit from the basic physical components of this exercise. One aspect of these benefits include being able to activate four fluid systems of the body; blood/circulation (activated as a result of the shifting of body weight from one leg to the other), lymph (activated through the specific movements of the arms/body/hips etc), synovial (activated through the alignment/coordination of the joints), and the cerebrospinal fluid (activated through the movement/coordination of the spine, body and head).
In tai chi, each movement has both opening and closing aspects. Opening can be thought of as expanding from inside to outside, and Closing is contracting from outside to inside.
For tai chi practice; when it is open, it is large and expansive and there is no more space outside. When it is closed, it is compacted and there is no more space inside.
For the uncontrolled there is no wisdom, nor for the uncontrolled is there the power of concentration; and for those without concentration there is no peace. And for the unpeaceful, how can there be happiness?
Peacefulness takes practice….a little bit every day, over and over, until it becomes part of your everyday experience.
Tai chi progressively develops gross and subtle physical coordination, and it is one of the most sophisticated methods of integrated whole-body movement. Tai chi training can be as strenuous and invigorating as aerobics, even though it can look deceptively easy and relaxed. Often those starting to practice tai chi use muscles that they didn’t know they had, and before you really learn to relax and soften your body, the habitual tension stored in your legs and shoulders may make your body tremble and ache during initial stages of practice.
However, you don’t have to be an expert to benefit from learning tai chi – even when done poorly, tai chi fosters vibrant health from deep within your body. As you grow in experience and are able to pay more attention to your body alignments and the energy mechanics of tai chi, you’ll find you gain more and more from your practice.
A core principle of tai chi practice is that of alignment – making sure all parts of the body are in an optimum place in relation to each other; this includes the position of the head, spine, knees, elbows, arms, hands and legs, as well as a number of aspects of the body below the skin. When the body is relaxed and in alignment everything that moves through it can do so in a less impeded way, helping to ensure a free-flow in the energetic system, oxygen, blood and nutrients as well as increasing the overall ease of movement.
Along with the Tao Te Ching, the I-Ching, or Book of Changes is one of the core texts in the context of taoism and tai chi. While in the West its true meaning has been obscured as a result of the focus on its use as a system of divination and numerology.
In China, it is recognised as a system of cosmology and philosophy that is based on the dynamic balance of opposing forces, the evolution of events as a process, and acceptance of the inevitability of change. The I-Ching provides a taxonomy that results from the observation of natural forces, and provides a series of transformative principles as a pathway to understanding a persons relationship to the world around them.
Contained within its many sections, the I-Ching includes a wide range of technical details about tai chi; these include different aspects of the yin and yang principles, to techniques for all kinds of energetic flow patterns. In addition, tai chi provides a vehicle to embody and actualize the I-Ching within the human body, mind, and spirit.
One common aspect that permeates all the different types of tai chi practice is to develop the mental capability to settle the mind, to be able to stay in the present moment and to cultivate awareness
– this is a fundamental prerequisite that enables the energetic, mental and spiritual development of tai chi to occur.
In tai chi this is simply referred to as stilling the mind, or finding stillness in motion – there are deeper implications and terminologies used for this process in taoist meditation, where this is the starting point for a deeper set of mental and spiritual practices.
There are also a number of similarities to the concept of ‘rigpa’ in many Tibetan dzogchen traditions – where rigpa is described as the awareness that allows you to see the true nature of the mind.
While tai chi training does eventually lead to mental relaxation and the development of energy, the first stages of learning tai chi focus on the physical structures of the body, coordination and subtle slow movements.
These initial physical forms also start the process of stilling the mind, relaxing the central nervous system and improving the basic energy flows around the body.
A core part of this initial tai chi training is learning the tai chi form – a slow series of connected movements that teach a number of key tai chi concepts and which form the basis of all subsequent training.