Understanding Tai Chi
What is Tai Chi?
Tai Chi is often described as a moving meditation because of the mental and physical relaxation it produces when practiced. It uses gentle slow circular movements, combined with deep breathing and concentration to create a low impact aerobic exercise that emphasises proper body mechanics. Relaxation of both your mind and body plays an important part when performing Tai Chi,.Once you learn to relax the movements have a gentle natural flow to them which is very pleasant to experience. Physical discomfort diminishes and mental worries drift away, everything functions the way it should. Aligning deep breathing with mentally following the movements and proper body mechanics you will relax both mentally and physically allowing your body to naturally regain health.
Slow verses fast
Often the misconception is to the slow movements in Tai Chi do not give a proper workout, that you need to push yourself hard and “break a sweat” to get any benefit, this is not true. To perform the movements in a slow, relaxed and controlled manner throughout the full range of the movement gives a complete mental and physical workout that has the benefit of not putting any pressure on your physical joints.
Picture lifting some weights in the gym, the way most people perform a lift is to use initial muscle strength to start the movement then momentum to lift the weight up, then momentum to bring the weight down again. This effectively only exercises the muscles in the beginning and end of the movement but neglects the middle. If you were to do the same exercise but slowly lifted the weight up, then slowly lowered the weight down, they would find you would exercise through the whole range of the movement and also that you couldn’t lift as heaving a weight for as many repetitions.
This is because you are not using momentum or gravity to do the work for you, this then allows you to extract the full benefit out of the exercise. Slow methodical movements have far more health benefits, lower impact on the joints and allow you to mentally engage with the exercise. The slow controlled, balanced movements of Tai Chi take advantage of this thus opening up the ability of a wider range of people to benefit from them.
Movement, Breathing, Concentration
• All Tai Chi movement is controlled by the bodies’ core, and manifests from the ground up thus increasing your posture and balance. All postures are performed with an emphasis on present moment awareness of the movement, thus anchoring your attention on your body and allowing you to become more in touch with your own posture and balance.The slowness of the movement ensures that muscles and tendons are exercised in a gentle controlled way over the full range of the movement.
Faster more traditional exercise movement tends to use momentum to help achieve this thus only exercising the beginning and the end but neglecting the middle of the muscle extension and contraction. Emphasis is also given to always shifting weight onto your supporting leg and feeling fully balanced before moving the other one, this ensures that there is no joint stress in movements and also increases your awareness of how to move in a controlled and balanced manner therefore lowering the risk of injury and falls.
• Breathing plays a central part to all Tai Chi and Qi Gong practice, you are encouraged to learn to loosen and use your diaphragm instead of their upper chest to breath. Through years of stress and habit many people breathe only in their upper chest therefore not using the full capacity of their lungs. This leads to weakening body core muscles, low oxygenation and low energy levels.
Through relaxed deep breathing techniques you will be able to strengthen your body core, learn to relax with each out breath and enjoy increased circulation which leads to faster healing.
• Both Tai Chi and Qi Gong are not only concerned with the physical aspects of the body but encase mental health as being a part of the recovery process. Tai Chi encourages you to mentally feel your body movement / breathing and developing a moment to moment awareness of your body posture, this not only improves your concentration but also allows you to experience a peacefulness that comes from attention.
• Combining gentle movement with deep breathing and moment to moment awareness leads to improved balance / posture, strengthening of the bodies core and muscles, lessening of bodily discomfort, increased oxygenation, circulation and lowering of the symptoms of depression, anxiety etc.
• It also has the added benefit of being practiced in a communal setting thus lowering the feeling of isolation and depersonalisation that can be experienced whilst a patient is recovering.
• Over my years of teaching Tai Chi the first improvement that can be observed is increased balance and lowering of falls risk, as has been supported by the NSW Health department study conducted in 2006. I have had a more personal experience of this, when my mother started learning Tai Chi she was 71, her balance was poor and her body rigid through ageing. There was a great danger of her having a fall; she was unable to lift one foot from the ground whilst stationary without losing balance.
Within a short period of time of learning Tai Chi she had improved balance and within two years of regular practice she could raise her leg high off the ground, had improved breathing and regained more flexibility throughout her body. She also found Tai Chi helped her recover her mobility swiftly after surgery.
• Slow controlled shifting of weight combined with gentle relaxed circular movements in which no limb is overextended, gives a full body workout which not only strengthens muscles and increases circulation but also has minimum injury risk and can be performed even if you find traditional exercising too stressful.
• Through learning to relax your diaphragm and perform deep regular breathes you are able to increase your lung capacity and also increase the oxygenation of your body. Deep diaphragm breathing also has the added benefit of massaging the internal organs and giving a feeling of increased energy / circulation.
• When the movements are performed, follow them with your eyes and feel the sensations of the movements as you do them. This anchors your attention and thus exercises your concentration. The added benefit of learning the movement sequence is that it encourages you to be mentally engaged with the exercise as it is occurring thus stimulating brain activity during the period of the exercise program.
Tai Chi is for Everyone
We need to start thinking about health differently, health is not something that we try to generate by next week; it is something that needs to be maintained throughout our lifetime. To be able to sustain it into our retirement and beyond we need a balanced exercise program that is sustainable. Tai Chi is this, it doesn’t favour age, health, size, race or colour. True, the younger you start the more benefits you will gain over your lifetime, but it’s never too late to start reaping the rewards.
Health is something we should all be concerned about, without it we have nothing.
Tai Chi offers an accessible way of staying healthy throughout your whole life, the only thing you need to do is choose to take the first step, your not alone, many more have made that step before you.
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This article was written by Stephen Procter, instructor from Tai Chi Health for Life, Australian College of Tai Chi & Qi Gong and Meditation Instructor from Meditation in the Shire, Kirrawee NSW, Australia. If you wish to post this article on another website or in a publication please respect the author and reference / link back to this website, thank you