Deepening the Mind-Body Connection through Tai Chi

In the very early stages of this blog I discussed Tai Chi as a pathway to mindfulness.  I also highlighted the challenges I experienced in maintaining daily practice of Tai Chi along with meditation and writing this blog, when I still had a range of professional and personal  commitments to fulfill on a regular basis.   I concluded then that keeping the benefits of Tai Chi at the forefront of my mind, aligning my Tai Chi practice with the timing of my highest energy levels (I’m a morning person) and continuously reading and writing about Tai Chi would build my motivation for daily practice.

In 2018, I explored the benefits of Tai Chi for the mind-body connection based mainly on research that had been conducted at various centres of research at UCLA such as those focused on psychoneuroimmunology and East-West Medicine. This current post highlights the work of Dr. Peter Wayne who is associated with the Harvard Medical School.

Peter Wayne, who has spent decades practising, studying and researching Tai Chi, stresses the power of Tai Chi to deepen the mind-body connection.  Peter is the Research Director for the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and the founder of The Tree of Life Tai Chi Center

The eight active ingredients of Tai Chi

In 2013, Peter published a book, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, summarizing the research around Tai Chi and highlighting what he calls the “eight active ingredients of Tai Chi” which he had developed through his own research and the teaching of Tai Chi Masters.   These ingredients focus on the “biological mechanisms” that contribute to the wide-ranging benefits of Tai Chi including those related to cognition, breathing and neuromuscular control.  Peter points out that this focus on active ingredients helps him in multiple ways – in shaping a curriculum for teaching Tai Chi, in communicating with members of the medical profession and in establishing clinical trials.

In an interview with Dan Kleiman about his research and teaching, Peter explained that his early study of evolutionary biology and ecological modelling helped him to develop a systems perspective that is holistic in orientation and strongly akin to Chinese Medicine.  His orientation to integrative medicine and his mind-body perspective on Tai Chi flow from this early academic training and related research experience.  In a technical presentation Neuroscience in the Body: Perspectives at the Periphery, Peter highlights the downside of having multiple medical specialisations that contribute to “reductionist thinking” and blind us to the whole-body benefits of interventions such as Tai Chi.

The eight active ingredients of Tai Chi identified in his book highlight his integrative, systems perspective:

  1. Mindfulness
  2. Intention
  3. Structural integration
  4. Relaxation (of the mind and body)
  5. Strengthening and building flexibility
  6. Freer breathing
  7. Social interaction and community (if done in a group)
  8. Embodied philosophy and ritual.

Deepening the mind-body connection through Tai Chi

Peter explained in his interview with Dan Kleiman that the integrative nature of Tai Chi and its capacity to deepen the mind-body connection is demonstrated in the focus on mindful breathing (which is common to all martial arts).  He pointed out that mindful breathing requires improved posture; positively impacts your nervous system, cardiovascular system and mood; and stills what Seth Godin calls the “Lizard Brain” through enhancing the power of focus.  In Peter’s view, an ecological perspective on health recognises that all these processes of body and mind are intertwined and mutually interdependent.

In his neuroscience presentation mentioned above, Peter described Tai Chi as a “multi-component mind-body exercise”.  He stressed the interaction of mind-body through Tai Chi by stating that it “integrates slow intentional movement with breathing and multiple cognitive skills”. The cognitive skills he refers to include body awareness, focus and visioning using imagery.

He illustrated the benefits of the mind-body connection involved in Tai Chi by mentioning several research studies that show two key outcomes (1) the primary risk factor in falls of people over 65 is “fear of falling” and (2) Tai Chi has been shown to reduce the fear of falling by 35%.  Tai Chi achieves this result not only by strengthening muscles and improving coordination and sensation (especially in the feet), but also by reducing falling anxiety, increasing exercise self-efficacy and improving the “executive function” of the brain.  Peter suggests that Tai Chi is a “gateway exercise” – increasing people’s confidence to try other things that lead to overall wellbeing.

Reflection

Research into the impacts of Tai Chi reinforce its power to improve our mind and body and the mind-body connection that is so critical for daily functioning, quality of life and longevity.  I have already identified the personal benefits that motivate me to practise Tai Chi.  However, Peter’s research and presentation has increased my desire to improve the frequency of my Tai Chi practice. 

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, research and reflection, we gain a better understanding of the mind-body connection, the impacts of our thinking and self-stories on our intentions and the blockages that impede putting our resolutions into effect, particularly at this time of the year (with the start of 2020).  I can look forward to improved Tai Chi practice and the multiple personal benefits that can accrue (not the least of these being to improve my tennis game!).

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Image by Antonika Chanel from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Accessing the “Spaciousness Within” through Mindfulness

Often, we are at our “wit’s end” trying to solve problems, overcome challenges or address conflicts. Deborah Eden Tull reminds us that through meditation and mindfulness practice, we can access what she calls the “spaciousness within” – wherein lies peace, calmness, creativity and well-being. In a meditation podcast for the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), Deborah provides two guided meditations and commentary to help us to access this spaciousness while listening to her and to continue to do so beyond the specific meditations.

Initial brief meditation – arriving at the present moment

At the beginning of her podcast, Deborah provides a way for you to transfer your attention from what you have been doing to arriving at being present in-the-moment. This assumes that you still have some level of involvement in your previous activity despite changing your location or attempting to change your focus.

As part of the process of becoming grounded, Deborah suggests that you make yourself comfortable in the first instance through a conscious, restful posture and then begin with a few conscious breaths to help you to become centred. The next part of this centring meditation involves a progressive process of getting in touch with your thoughts, then feelings and finally the bodily sensations that have accompanied you to your meditation exercise.

Following the development of this inner awareness, she suggests that you get in touch with your personal motivation for undertaking the meditation or listening to her podcast – what is it that you are hoping to achieve for yourself? This initial brief meditation closes with taking a deep, full-body breath to open yourself to the experience of listening to her commentary and undertaking the subsequent meditation practice.

Reflection – observing people texting while walking

As part of her commentary on accessing our inner spaciousness, Deborah reflected on observing people on the university campus texting while they were walking between buildings/ classes. She observed that this practice actually builds our habit of busyness – the antithesis of developing the spaciousness within. This multi-tasking activity strengthens our conditioning to be always busy – thinking, planning, evaluating, dramatizing, revisiting the past (depression), anticipating the future (anxiety) – and builds on our overall penchant for distraction.

We can choose to cultivate a life of serenity, ease, calmness and resilience through developing present moment awareness or opt for a life that intensifies restlessness, dis-ease, agitation and fragility. Deborah reminds us that the quality of our life experience is determined by the focus of our attention.   

Her second meditation (beginning at the 14-minute mark) helps you to cultivate the spaciousness within through a focus on your breathing and exploration of the imagery of the ocean.

Mindful breathing and ocean imagery

Deborah’s second guided meditation focuses on breathing. She reminds us that this meditation process should be free of the everyday habit of striving or seeking to change ourselves for the better. It is very much about being rather than doing.

In focussing on your breathing in this meditation exercise, you learn to develop awareness about your breathing in the moment – whether your breathing is deep or shallow, fast or slow, even or choppy. You are encouraged to rest in your breathing and accept it the way it is – not trying to force a desired pattern on your breathing.

Following this focus on breathing, Deborah asks you to imagine an ocean – the turbulence of the waves above and the stillness and vastness of the water below. She encourages you to envisage the calm waters below the waves as the mirror of your “spaciousness within”.

Accessing the spaciousness within

You can choose to develop awareness of the spaciousness within through formal meditation or through informal practices such as mindful eating, mindful walking or stopping/ pausing in the midst of a situation to ground yourself in the present moment.

As we develop mindfulness through formal meditation and other mindful practices, we can access the spaciousness within and experience calmness, resilience, creativity, ease and well-being to improve the quality of our lives.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of Pexels on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Developing Kindness through Meditation and Imagery

Diana Winston in one of her weekly meditation podcasts introduces a kindness meditation that employs guided imagery.  The key approach is to create a positive image and mentally invite others in to join you in that place.  This immersion in the present moment not only reduces stress and anxiety but develops a kindness orientation that can flow into your daily life.

Paying attention with kindness – cultivating a kindness orientation

Fundamental to this approach is paying attention with kindness – a form of mindfulness that envelops others through our care and concern.  Often, we are unaware of others, even those close to us, because we are absorbed in planning the future to reduce anxiety or ruminating about what might have been in the past.  We can become absorbed in disappointment over unrealised expectations

Guided imagery meditation proposed by Diana can take us outside of our self-absorption and open ourselves to kindness towards others.  Neuroscience, through discovery of the neuroplasticity of the brain, has reinforced the fact that what we actively cultivate in our minds will shape our future thoughts, emotions and actions.  Regular practice of kindness meditation creates new neural pathways so that we will find that we become more thoughtful and kinder – we become what we cultivate.  This principle is embedded in the story of The Grinch.

The Grinch in Dr. Seuss’ book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, cultivated meanness through his thoughts, words and actions and became progressively meaner to the point that he stole everyone’s Christmas presents and trees.  He was ultimately undone by the kindness of little Cindy Lou and her community who invited him to a Christmas meal despite his meanness to them.  At the meal, he shared his realisation of the value of kindness by making a toast, To kindness and love, the things we need most.  Kindness meditation practice shapes our orientation and is contagious, infecting those around us.

Developing kindness through meditation and imagery

In her guided meditation podcast, Diana leads us in an approach to meditation that incorporates guided imagery.  First, however, she guides us to become grounded through posture, focus and bodily awareness.  This state of being in the present moment can be anchored by focusing on our breathing or sounds around us (without interpretation, being-with-the-sound).  

Diana uses the imagery of a pond as a metaphor for kindness (starting at the 20.44mins point of the podcast).  The pond contains “kindness waters” that surround anyone who enters the pond.  The meditation involves progressively picturing people entering the pond and being embraced by the waters that spread happiness, protection, well-being and contentment.

As we grow in mindfulness through the practice of kindness meditation aided by imagery, we can become more kind and caring through cultivating a kindness orientation.  Our words and actions, in turn, influence others so that kindness grows around us. 

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of MabelAmber on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.