There are a number of things in tai chi that initially appear counter-intuitive, and one of these is the overall concept of ‘less is more’. In western culture we are told to give 100% of our effort, and to push hard to achieve results. In tai chi this approach does not work – any excessive stress, tension and strain will only restrict your development and delay the benefits that proper practice brings.
In tai chi a good approach is to use 70% of your overall capacity – gradually your 70% will increase, leading to improved stamina, balance, energy etc. This is not to say that tai chi will not and should not be done without effort, or that you will not feel the effects of practicing and moving your body in new and different ways. But this way you will get to enjoy the benefits sooner and enjoy the journey more.
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 human potential for intelligence and dignity is attuned to experiencing the brilliance of the bright blue sky, the freshness of green fields, and the beauty of the trees and mountains. We have an actual connection to the reality that can wake us up and make us feel basically good.
~ Shambhala teachings by Chogyam Trungpa
while taoism originated in China (during the 4th century) and the dzogchen tradition emerged from ancient Tibetan teachings, both share very similar methods and goals. These paths of practice are designed to awaken the practitioners to a direct experience of being present in the moment, to allow them a direct experience of a state of awareness.
Dzogchen teachings emphasise a primordial open awareness as the base for practice, this awareness is centred around the state of rigpa which can be described as ‘nondual awareness’. Rigpa practices contain many different meditative forms, including both stationary and moving practices.
The equivalent of energy or chi in the dzogchen tradition is called ‘tsa lung’ and a number of movement and energy development systems have been developed and are often referred to as trul-khor or kum nye.
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.