Tai Chi for Physical Health, Energy and Psychological Well-Being

Tai Chi is an integrative, whole-body routine that builds the mind-body connection.  There are many attempts to categorise the numerous benefits of Tai Chi and the categories vary with the orientation of the writer/researcher. For instance, Dr. Peter Wayne of the Harvard Medical School who has spent many years researching and teaching the efficacy of Tai Chi identified eight active ingredients of this internal martial art in his book, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi.

World-renowned martial arts practitioner, Bruce Frantzis, maintains that the integrative power of Tai Chi flows from the combination of stillness of the mind with intentional movement of the body.  The stillness refers to being present in the moment, not lost in thoughts associated with the past or the future.  However, as Peter Wayne points out, the mind-body connection is enhanced immeasurably by integrating breathing, movement and “cognitive skills” associated with focused attention, body awareness and the use of imagery.

In this current blog post, I will explore the benefits and efficacy of Tai Chi under three categories (which are not mutually exclusive but are mutually reinforcing) – physical health, energy and psychological well-being.

Tai Chi for physical health

The health benefits of Tai Chi are numerous and wide-ranging, positively impacting multiple bodily systems such as the circulatory, immune, respiratory and nervous systems.  Along with these systemic benefits are improvements in the functioning of different parts of the body such as the heart, nerves, muscles and bones.  In turn, the integrative nature of this internal martial art builds balance and coordination and improves flexibility and reflexes.  

Tai Chi can also relieve or remove chronic health problems.  Caroline Frantzis, in commenting on Bruce’s video presentation and illustration of Taoist energy arts, observed that Tai Chi is prescribed quite regularly by Chinese doctors as a form of therapeutic treatment for “blood pressure, heart problems, poor circulation, asthma, impotence, and nervous diseases” as well as for arthritis and back, neck and joint problems.  Researchers too have shown that practising Tai Chi regularly increases brain volume, improves thinking skills and memory and may, in fact, prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s or reduce the rate of development of dementia-related illnesses.

Tai Chi for energy

Bruce Frantzis has spent the better part of his adult life studying and exploring Qi, the energetic lifeforce that enables the body and mind to function.  He maintains that when we can really tune into our bodies through Tai Chi, we can actually feel the energy flow as it moves through “the fluids, nerves, fascia and other tissues” of the body.  In this way, according to Bruce, we can “become more fully alive and vibrant” because we have released any blockages and enabled the natural energy flow of the body.  In support of these observations, Caroline Frantzis (nee Martin) stated that during Tai Chi a practitioner “exercises every single muscle, ligament, tendon and joint of the body” and the associated movements effectively massage internal organs and every lymph node thus energising “all the body’s internal pumps”.

Tai Chi for psychological well-being

Peter Wayne devotes a complete chapter to the positive impact of Tai Chi on psychological well-being in his book, The Harvard Medical Guide to Tai Chi.  He incorporates personal reports and scientific research to illustrate how Tai Chi can reduce both depression and anxiety symptoms, improve mood, develop positive attitudes, reduce stress and tame the “monkey mind” (“mind wandering” is the cause of much personal distress).  He argues that Tai Chi’s positive impacts on psychological health can be attributed to not only its emphasis on “form and posture” together with its exercise component but also its capacity to develop “mindfulness and focused attention”.  He draws on recent research to demonstrate that these latter attributes and the associated state of being-in-the-moment, actively contribute to improved psychological welfare, happiness and overall quality of life. 

Peter explains how he accentuates this positive contribution of Tai Chi by having his trainees focus on bodily sensations during practice (e.g. the feel of your feet on the floor or ground, the movement of your breath or your hands/head, or the warm sensation in your fingers).  He maintains that the psychological benefits of Tai Chi can be increased by not thinking “but simply notice things as they are, without trying to fix or change them”.   Peter Wayne also draws on the comments of Peter Deadman that “cultivating this deeper awareness allows us to feel and explore the truer currents of our emotional life”.   He also alludes to the power of imagery and visualisation during Tai Chi as a means to develop positive thoughts and groundedness (e.g. imagining yourself as a tree with deep roots into the ground through which passes all tension and tautness).

Reflection

I have found in the past that frequently reviewing the benefits of Tai Chi identified by researches and practitioners builds my own motivation to incorporate this internal martial art form in my mindfulness practice.  Peter Wayne, in his Guide to Tai Chi mentioned above, provides a photo-illustrated, simple program along with ways to incorporate Tai Chi into the activities of each day.

I have previously completed two introductory Tai Chi courses conducted by the Taoist Tai Chi Society.   However I found the 108 movements based on the practice of Master Moy Lin Shin too difficult to learn and practise because of my work commitments.  I have found since, that I can regularly practise the first 17 moves of Master Moy’s Tai Chi set by following the free “Practise with me” video training guide.

Darius Boyd, Australian Rugby League legend, describes in his recently-released book, Battling the Blues, how he went through a number of really “dark periods” of depression and how he came out of these feeling stronger and more resilient through the assistance of professional therapy and the social support of his wife, mentors and friends.  He maintains that we each have dark periods and that “mental health is something that you consistently need to work at”.  Tai Chi offers an easy and accessible way to keep the dark periods at bay or, at the very least, to lessen their impact.

As we grow in mindfulness and focused attention through meditation and Tai Chi, we can reap the benefits of regular practice in terms of improved physical health and psychological well-being, enhanced energy levels and enjoyment of the ease of wellness.

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Image by Elias Sch. 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.

Improving Your Tennis Performance through Tai Chi

Dr. Peter Wayne, Tai Chi researcher and long-time practitioner, contends that the principles of Tai Chi have a strong synergy with the physical and mental demands of many sports.  In his book, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, he supports this contention with examples and scientific research.  In the book, he strongly suggests that sportspeople adopt Tai Chi as a form of cross-training, especially people engaged in the sports of tennis, golf or skiing where the positive impact on performance is more direct.  Throughout the book, he provides specific Tai Chi related exercises for each of these three sports.  

How Tai Chi practice improves tennis performance

Peter’s research led him to identify the eight active ingredients of Tai Chi which are the primary focus of his abovementioned book.  He was able to explain the power of Tai Chi to strengthen the mind-body connection – a key ingredient for effective performance in any sport.  Peter highlighted this connection in relation to tennis by drawing on Timothy Gallwey’s work in relation to the inner game of tennis which I discussed previously.  In particular, Peter focused on Timothy’s emphasis on self-observation, mental and bodily awareness and the need to be non-judgmental when making mistakes in tennis.

Peter also focused on the specific active ingredients of Tai Chi that had a profound positive impact on tennis performance:

  • Awareness (including focused-attention and mindfulness) – Tai Chi builds bodily awareness (positioning and movement), strengthens the capacity to focus (on the ball and the opposition), and develops the ability to be fully in the present moment.
  • Intention (includes expectation and belief) – associated with this is the power of visualization, an important ingredient in improving and sustaining sports performance.  Tai Chi training draws strongly on metaphor and imagery in relation to movement, drawing on images from nature such as the movement of clouds and the wings of a bird.  In his book, Peter draws heavily on the research into “motor imagery” and its positive effects on performance.  The focused attention and groundedness involved in Tai Chi help to reinforce self-belief and shut out the negative self-stories that can impact expectations e.g. “I’m going to lose this tennis set” or “I’m going to do a double fault” or “I can’t possibly handle his serve”. 
  • Grounded Movement – Peter explains that the principles of Tai Chi state that “all movement is started in the feet, steered by the waist, and administered by the hands” and this is reflected in the practice of Tai Chi.  This process of movement is built into tennis strokes such as the forehand and backhand and incorporated in basic tennis training [Early in my tennis playing experience, I would coach very young children in tennis basic steps and the coaching followed this pattern].  Peter provides a basic training exercise in his book that he calls Tai Chi Tennis which mirrors this grounded movement.
  • Balance (both physical and emotional) – Tai Chi involves considerable weight transfer from one leg to the other, from forward to backward.  Weight transfer and the related capacity to maintain balance are essential components of tennis shots, especially volleys and tennis smashes.  Emotional balance is linked to the inner game of tennis mentioned above, including the capacity to manage mistakes and deal with setbacks.

Reflection

Peter’s research and practice reinforces the power of Tai Chi to improve tennis performance. His committed, professional approach to Tai Chi over many years is highly inspirational as is his book that draws all this together in terms of “active ingredients”.  As we grow in mindfulness through the practice of Tai Chi and meditation, we can increase our bodily awareness, emotional and physical balance and draw heavily on the power of mindfulness to strengthen focused attention and intention.  The real benefits will come with regular practice. 

This writing and reflection strengthen my motivation to increase my practice of Tai Chi and other mindfulness practices that will, in turn, improve my tennis performance and increase my capacity to be-in-the-moment and experience all the positivity that this entails.

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Image by marijana1 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.

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.