Where the Mind goes ... the Body will follow Tai Chi for Busy People

Health Benefits

What can Tai Chi do for you?

By Dr Paul Lam
© Tai Chi Productions. All rights reserved. You can copy this article for educational purpose but not for any commercial gain. For example you can give a copy of this article for your fee paying students and conference attendees provided you do not charge a fee for it.

Just what is Tai Chi?

Originating in ancient China, tai chi is an effective exercise for health of mind and body. Although an art with great depth of knowledge and skill, it can be easy to learn and soon delivers its health benefits. For many, it continues as a lifetime journey. There are many styles and forms of tai chi, the major ones being Chen, Yang, Wu, another Wu (actually two different words in Chinese) and Sun. Each style has its own unique features, although most styles share similar essential principles.

These essential principles include the mind being integrated with the body; fluidity of movement; control of breathing; and mental concentration. The central focus is to enable the qi or life force to flow smoothly and powerfully throughout the body. Total harmony of the inner and outer self comes from the integration of mind and body, achieved through the ongoing practice of tai chi.

Here's to your health

Medical and fitness authorities stress that effective exercise for health should include three components: cardio-vascular fitness or stamina, muscular strength, and flexibility.

Cardio-vascular fitness

Cardio-vascular fitness means better heart-lung capacity. A good supply of blood and oxygen is essential for maintaining your health and for healing any disease.

In 1996, a study was carried out involving 126 post-heart attack patients. They were randomly assigned to participate in a tai chi class, an aerobic exercise class or a non-exercise support group. The patients from the tai chi group came out with better cardiovascular fitness and lower blood pressure than patients from the non-exercise group. To top it off, 80 percent of the people in the tai chi group kept up the practice of tai chi while the non-exercise support group retained only 10 percent of its original membership. The aerobic group retained less of its members than the tai chi group and their diastolic blood pressure did not improve.

Since then many other studies have confirmed the efficacy of tai chi for cardio-vascular fitness.

Strengthening

By strengthening our muscles, we keep our joints stable and protected. Of course, we need our muscles to move and when we move, the muscles pump fluid and blood throughout the body, improving the functions not only of the organs and joints but also the entire body.

Many well-known sports heroes suffer from osteoarthritis resulting from injuries. Yet, they are able to perform at their peak level because their strong muscles protect their joints and reduce the pain of osteoarthritis. After they retire from active sports, however, and their training lapses, their muscles weaken. Arthritis flares up. Perhaps we can conclude that had they taken up tai chi upon retirement they would have stayed in shape and enjoyed a healthier, happier retirement.

Flexibility

Flexibility improves our range of motion, making us more functional. Being flexible keeps our joints, muscles – our entire body – healthy and allows us to be more active. Jim, a 56-year-old retired fireman, is a good example of how tai chi can improve flexibility. Because of an on-the-job injury, Jim couldn't lift his arms any higher than his shoulders. Otherwise healthy, he experienced ongoing frustration. He couldn't reach up to cupboards; he couldn't paint his house; he couldn't even reach a book on a shelf above his head. Jim had given up hope of ever returning to normal. Then, simply to get exercise, he took up tai chi. Within six months, normal flexibility had returned to his shoulder joints. His life changed. He could reach.

Let's get it straight

In addition to these three main components of healthy exercise, tai chi also improves posture, an important component of health. Developing correct posture will result in less wear and tear of the joint muscles. When your posture is upright, the lung space is larger. Try taking a deep breath and expanding your chest. You'll notice that there's more space in the chest. Now try to hunch. The space in your chest diminishes, doesn't it? As you can see, the body works better in an upright posture.

Shirley suffered from lower back pain and sciatica problems for some time before she started doing tai chi. Tai chi really helped her. "I think part of the reason I got better was that tai chi strengthened my back muscles and made me conscious of keeping good posture throughout the day," she says. "I don't slouch any more. It has really made a difference."

Good posture in turn promotes better balance, thus preventing falls and the resulting injuries. Shirley goes on to say, "Tai chi has also strengthened my ankles. I was twisting and spraining them once or twice a year. Now, between my stronger ankles and better posture, I enjoy better balance, and as I get older, I'll be less likely to fall."

It's all in your head

The mind is the most important aspect of health. It's a universally accepted fact that the mind controls the body. Surely you've heard of people overcoming disabilities because of their positive attitudes and strong minds? And tai chi, as one of the most powerful mind-body exercises, teaches the student to be aware of the intrinsic energy from which he or she can perceive greater self-control and empowerment.

Almost everyone who practises tai chi recognizes its powerful effect on relaxation and concentration. Take Joanne, for example. About 10 years ago while driving, she was clipped by a van running a red light. She suffered seven pinched nerves between her skull and her coccyx. Her frequent business travel didn't help. For years she lived in pain.

Finally, a chiropractor suggested she try tai chi. "A six-week introductory course was enough to get me hooked," says Joanne. "I found that, even in that short time, what we were doing was enough to help me start to relax, and that meant my back was finally getting a chance to heal."

Stress

You don't have to have sustained an injury to benefit from tai chi-produced relaxation. Tai chi simply offers a tool to help you cope with busy, modern-day life by appreciating the tranquillity and the nature around you. Going hand-in-hand with relaxation is the alleviation of stress. As a high-energy businessperson, Joanne has truly benefited from her eight years of tai chi. "Physically, I can handle stress a lot better than I used to. I'm now aware much earlier when I'm responding to stress and can react appropriately. That means I don't end up with tight shoulders and headaches.

"Mentally, I find that overall I handle people and stressful situations differently. I'm more inclined to sit back, listen, and evaluate a situation than I used to be," she continues. "I make much more use of energy and try to be sensitive to other people's energy to assess their state of mind and body. That's tremendously helpful in dealing with difficult people and situations."

Spirit

In this context, the term "spirit" refers to simply feeling good and positive rather than "spirit" in the sense of religious or occult. For instance, "Hey, today I'm in good spirits." Or, "Today I'm happy." It's usually not easy to control your mood or your spirit with your conscious mind. If it were easy, depression wouldn't be so common, nor would it be so hard for doctors to treat. The spirit and mood is largely controlled by the subconscious mind, which has an immense power to control us. For instance, you know you're depressed, and although you dislike the condition, you can't seem to get out of this mental state.

The daily stress, negativity and destructive emotion accumulate to dampen our spirit, whereas when we're close to nature, for example, or involved in a cultural activity, our psychic energy gets in balance. All too often, fast-paced Western society tips the balance to the negative side. In fact, in Western society more than 50 percent of diseases presented to doctors are caused by mind-related problems, such as stress.

The spirit is also often meant a form of community spirit that one sees something more important than the self.

Tai chi can help. The ancient Chinese were aware of the immense power of the mind/spirit. Tai chi aims to achieve harmony with nature and the balance of mental serenity and physical strength. Having better balance calms the unconscious mind.

Enhancing the qi-vital life energy-during tai chi practice is the path to uplifting the spirit. The qi is simply a life energy within all living beings. For humans, our minds can learn to enhance qi, which in turn, connects with the unconscious mind to enhance our mental attitude. Qi grows when the person is well balanced and in harmony. Once your body is relaxed and calm, and your mind receptive, your qi will begin to circulate. And that will start your spirits soaring.


Tai Chi Principles

By: Dr Paul Lam and Nancy Kaye
© Copyright Tai Chi Productions 2007. All rights reserved, no part of this article may be reproduced in any forms or by any means, without permission in writing, except for non-profit educational purpose. For example: you can photocopy this article for a paying student or participant as long as this article is not included as part of your charge.

Tai chi is a sophisticated art with many different styles and forms. Despite the many variations of tai chi, its immense power for improving health and inner energy derives from a set of essential principles.

Here we present the most important ones. We've put them into simple, easy-to-understand language. By bearing them in mind as you learn and practise, you'll be able to do tai chi more effectively right from the beginning. To see if you're following these principles, you can use a video camera, a mirror, or check with a friend or instructor.

  1. Do your movements slowly, without stopping. Make them continuous like water flowing in a river. Don't jerk. Maintain the same speed throughout.

  2. Imagine you're moving against resistance. That will cultivate your inner force (qi). Imagine the air around you is becoming denser and that every move you make is against a gentle resistance-almost like moving in water.

  3. Be conscious of weight transference. This is important for improving mobility, coordination, and stability. Be aware when you transfer your weight and be aware of each step of your weight transference. When you move forward, for example, put your weight on one leg while maintain an upright posture, touch down gently with the other heel first, and then gradually place the entire foot on the ground and put more of your weight onto that foot, slowly and consciously transfer more of your weight forward.

  4. Maintain an upright posture and body alignment. Maintain the body upright supplely and keep the body well aligned in a straight line without undue tension is important. This can be more difficult than you expected, especially when you start bending your knees. Very often when people bend their knees the body alignment become distorted. Test yourself, standing side on to a mirror, don't look at the mirror, bend your knees and look at the mirror now. Is your back in a vertical line to the ground? A good way to keep a good alignment as you do this, imagine you're going to sit on an empty chair, bend both your knees and hip joints. Practice it with the mirror and check yourself every now and then. We have found many people don't keep a good body alignment, and are not aware of it. That is why we said it is more difficult than expected. However once done right, your tai chi will improve greatly because qi flows best in the aligned body. Hunching forward will hinder the qi flow, and compromise your balance and leaning backward will create extra strain to the spine.

  5. Loosen or 'Song' the joints. You should relax when you do tai chi, but by relax we don't mean let your muscles get floppy. Instead, consciously and gently stretch your joints from within, almost like you're expanding your joints internally. Many people mis- translated the Chinese word 'Song' into relaxation, which is wrong. Song is both relaxed and loosened.

  6. To loosen the spine, imagine it's a string, and that you're gently stretching it from both ends. For the lower limbs, bend your knees and stretch your hips out to form an arch as you crouched. Other lower limb joints will gently expand from within.

  7. Focus on your movements. Avoid distraction. Focus on what you're doing. Be aware of all the principles mentioned above, but think of them one at a time.

Tai Chi Breathing

By Dr Paul Lam
© Tai Chi Productions. All rights reserved. You can copy this article for educational purpose but not for any commercial gain. For example you can give a copy of this article for your fee paying students and conference attendees provided you do not charge a fee for it.

"What about the breathing?" Numerous students have asked me this question. Some teachers believe that breathing patterns should be very specific. For example, in each and every part of a movement, there is a specific breathing pattern-in and out, slowly or quickly. These teachers feel that the breathing has to be just so for each movement. I find this method difficult and think it can impede improvement for some students. It often leads to too much focus on the breathing and distraction from focusing on other essential principles. No two people are the same. They have different lung capacities and different speeds in their movements so to coordinate in the same specific pattern with others would be difficult for many. In addition, this can lead to forced or contrived breathing which can be harmful.

Correct breathing is an important part of tai chi. Here's a guide based on essential tai chi principles. The key is the storing and delivering of energy because tai chi emphasises on internal energy. Every tai chi set are comprised of movements alternates between gathering, storing and then delivering energy. Often the classics describe it as opening and closing. When you open, it's storing energy like someone drawing an arrow in a bow; in closing, the energy is delivering so it's like shooting the arrow. Keep this image in your mind and the rest will be easy to follow.

When you're inhaling (storing energy), think of taking in the life energy-oxygen- into your body. When you deliver energy or force, you exhale. This can be applied to almost all tai chi movements since they are, in essence, alternating opening and closing movements.

When your hands pull apart, that's an opening movement. For example, in the Sun style opening and closing movement, when your hands are in front of your chest, opening up, you breathe in to store energy. When your hands come closer, you breathe out, delivering energy. Another example is Single Whip in Yang style. At the end of Single Whip, even though your hands are opened out, it's actually a closing movement because that's where you deliver the energy, so you breathe out. Using this rationale, you can see in Chen style's punching movements, when you're bringing your hands closer to store up energy, that's an in breath and when you punch out, that's the out breath.

And then there's up and down movements. When you move your hands up, you're storing your energy, and therefore you breathe in. When you bring your hands down, you're delivering energy-shooting the arrow-so you breathe out. Likewise, when you stand up and bend down.

Use this guide throughout your tai chi forms. Whenever you're in doubt, focus on practising the form correctly: Relax, loosen your joints and free your breathing, and then you'll find your breathing most likely to be correct. Don't force or hold your breath. Simply allow your body to breathe naturally when in doubt.

I have created the Dan Tian Breathing Method based on new scientific findings and the previous known abdomenal and reverse abdominal breathing methods. It is more simple yet more powerful in energy cultivation.

The Dan Tian Breathing Method

This breathing method is created based on traditional qigong and modern medical research into the deep stabilizer muscles. It is effective to facilitate sinking qi to the dan tian and to enhance qi power, in turn improving internal energy. It can be incorporated into all your qigong and tai chi movements.

You can practise the breathing either sitting or standing upright. Be aware of holding the correct posture. Put left hand on your abdomen just above the belly button and right hand below it. Concentrate on your lower abdomen and the pelvic floor muscle.

When you inhale, expand your lower abdominal area—allow it to bulge out a little—and let your abdominal and pelvic floor muscles relax. You should feel a slight pushing out of the right hand. As you exhale, gently contract the pelvic floor muscles and the lower abdomen. Feel the contraction of the muscle with your right hand, keeping the area above your belly button as still as possible. Contract the pelvic floor muscles very gently, so gently that it’s almost like you’re just thinking about contracting them. Another good way is to imagine that you’re bringing your pelvic floor just half an inch closer to your belly button. A stronger contraction would move the left hand too much and that would mean involving different groups of muscles therefore not be as effective.

As you inhale and relax the pelvic and lower abdominal muscles, try not to relax them completely but retain approximately 10–20 percent of the contraction. This will allow you to maintain a upright posture and have the right group of muscles ready for the next phase.

Practice it regularly and you will find it easier to do, as you practice your tai chi forms, apply this method as often as comfortable to you. There is no need to be conscious of this breathing 100% of the time. Whenever you feel uncomfortable, simply let go and breathe naturally.

If you can feel the qi, gently push it down along the conception vessel on expiration, and up along the governing vessel on inspiration. Another good way is to visualise your qi move in a straight line just beneath your skin: up to middle of your sternum (the point below two nipples) on inspiration and down to the dan tian on expiration.