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Tai Chi for Health and Rejuvenation

by Matthew Rochford(more info)

listed in chi energy martial arts, originally published in issue 77 - June 2002

Tai Chi (or Tai Chi Chuan, to give its full name) first appeared in China around 500 years ago when its primary purpose was as a martial art. The legends that surround the beginnings of Tai Chi, however, go back over 2,000 years and point to a more mystical root and spiritual practice immersed in the Taoist quest for immortality. Most of the Tai Chi taught in the West now, though, is derived from the Yang family who began studying it during the 18th century and popularized this previously very secret art for health and longevity in the 19th century. Over the centuries, Tai Chi has evolved and changed, taking on characteristics of all the Masters/Mistresses who have practised it. Like all healing arts, Tai Chi is alive and evolving all the time, something that is refreshing and stimulating to practitioners and students alike.

Looking at the outside of Tai Chi one can see its fluid grace and slow pace and glimpse its power. If you look closely at a skilled practitioner you will also see its martial skill, energetic harmony and structural alignment. A beautiful art form, Tai Chi can lead to significant improvement in health and well-being.


Parting the Wild Horse's Mane
Parting the Wild Horse's Mane

Practical Outline

The main 'essentials' for Tai Chi practice include:

  • Relaxation (both in body and mind);
  • Posture. The pelvis is tilted, the tail bone tucked in, the chest is relaxed and the knees are slightly bent. This produces a solid, upright, but relaxed stance, which helps the internal organs align themselves and breathing to improve;
  • Directing movement with the waist. The waist movement gently massages the internal organs and is seen as the 'governor' of the movement;
  • Focusing the mind at the Tan Tien, the energy centre 1.5 inches below the navel within the body, often referred to as a 'storehouse' where cultivated energy accumulates;
  • Physical (and energetic) alignment;
  • Enhanced breathing with the diaphragm, to increase the oxygenation of the blood and intake of energy and stimulate energy flow in the abdomen;
  • Coordination and connection between the upper and lower body, for physical harmony and whole body, 'authentic' movement;
  • Suspension of the head top, to encourage energy flow, lighten the movement and to open the occiput at the back of the neck;
  • Allowing consciousness to lead the movement. When the mind leads the movement the energy naturally follows.

A Health Practice

The harmony and balance achieved through Tai Chi practice make it attractive to many people who wish to improve their health or relieve stress. Scientific research has shown that Tai Chi can balance blood pressure[1] and even change brain waves[2] (from alpha [active] to beta [receptive]). Pilot schemes with schoolchildren have shown significant reductions in behavioural problems and studies of older people have shown a significant decrease in falls due to infirmity[3] (by up to 50%). At present I teach over 100 people a week, many of whom have told me that minor health problems have cleared up through Tai Chi practice.

Case Studies

Case Study 1 - ME

Andrea was a 21-year-old art student who had been suffering from ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) for three years. Having studied dance since childhood and living a fairly active life she had become virtually bed bound for six months due to her ME. When she came to Tai Chi she was more able and no longer confined to bed. Her energy was, however, still extremely low; she still suffered from chronic fatigue and sleepless nights due to an overactive mind. Having made some minor changes to her diet, she came to Tai Chi wishing to improve her energy levels and help her recover fully from the symptoms of her illness. Initially she came for private lessons of 30 minutes where we focused on some very simple movements to help her relax, calm her mind and get the blood and energy circulating. After the sessions Andrea felt much better and had more energy for that particular day. The sessions gradually increased in time to one hour (after two months of weekly sessions) and we had covered four simple Chi Kung exercises, which improve the health of the internal organs, and began working on a Tai Chi form known as the Eight Posture Simplified Yang Style. Where the Chi Kung helped to open the energy channels of the body, the Tai Chi set did this plus it helped to strengthen the muscular system very gently without creating stress. Often after the sessions she felt much warmer (improved circulation) and, after 12 months of Tai Chi, dietary changes and homeopathy, she was back at college leading a near normal life. She said that Tai Chi had undoubtedly helped in this healing process and that she had now equipped herself with a valuable tool for self-help.

Case Study 2 - Back Problems

Martin had back problems due to a muscular injury and recurring spasm in his lower back. His osteopath recommended Tai Chi as a way of strengthening his lower back muscles, improving his posture and enhancing his body awareness. With Martin I focused a lot on correct alignment so that his back became straighter but without stiffness. The 'seated' posture of Tai Chi is especially effective for strengthening the lower back muscles, and within two months Martin had noticed an improvement. In the two years since, the back problems have occurred only once, having previously been a regular occurrence.

Energy

Many things affect the life-sustaining energy flow in the human body: stress, diet, state of mind, illness, mood and environment. Tai Chi addresses energetic imbalance by:

1. calming the mind;
2. focusing the mind at the Tan Tien;
3. aligning the major energy points of the body;
4. grounding this energy flow through rooting the chi via the feet;
5. actually increasing this flow via relaxed, flowing movement.

By cultivating and activating energy, Tai Chi dissolves blockages and rebalances the mind and emotions of the individual. The slow, focused movements stimulate and circulate this energy throughout the body, dissolving blockages and promoting healing.

Body

Part of our training as Tai Chi teachers was to familiarize ourselves with the muscular/skeletal system and see how to align the body correctly via subtle changes to achieve balance, strength and connectedness within the physical structures of the body. By working in this way, the body can work more efficiently and effectively without abusing any load-bearing joints or blocking the flow of blood or chi. The body benefits immensely from Tai Chi practice, cleansing it from toxins (via lymphatic stimulation) and calming the nervous system.

Mind

Using the mind is like using any muscle. In Tai Chi we spend time focusing the mind at the Tan Tien in order to quieten it and develop focus. By focusing on the movements and the quality of movement we develop concentration, determination and kinaesthetic awareness. These mental aspects of Tai Chi deepen each time we practise, and eventually the mind becomes very quiet, free from distraction, worry or analysis. The side effect is relaxation - in itself a major contributor to the maintenance of health!

It is the union of mind, intention, body and energy that is the essence of Tai Chi. Without this union Tai Chi is just physical exercise.

Spirit

By achieving balance and equanimity in our mind and body, our spirit is raised and we become more accepting and suffer less as a result. This equilibrium is what traditional Chinese medicine attempts to achieve and what Tai Chi can help you achieve. Tai Chi is a wonderful path to the spirit as it engages all our faculties and excludes nothing.

Theoretical Background

The ancient people of China had knowledge of energy, which they have developed up to the present day. The energy system of the body was analysed according to natural principles and the five elements present in existence (fire, wood, earth, water and metal). Channels of energy within the body (meridians) were observed closely and, when blockages occurred, attempts to restore the flow with Qi Gong, herbs, acupuncture or later Tai Chi, became the norm. All attempts at healing are in essence attempts to establish proper flow. Without this, life cannot find balance.

Whether practised as a martial art (a peaceful form of self-defence and a confidence builder) or for health and healing, Tai Chi, through its unique synergy of energy, mind, body and spirit offers us a complete path to fulfilment and healthy stasis.

Centring for Therapists and Healees

One of the most notable side effects of Tai Chi practice is centredness: an exquisite sense of physical/emotional/energetic equanimity, which arises from spending time and effort focusing the mind at the Tan Tien. This in turn leads to greater effectiveness, presence and enjoyment of life, all things that healing practitioners and their clients are working towards in one way or another. A simple set of exercises taken from Tai Chi can work wonders as part of, or preparation for, any form of body-mind therapy.

Getting Started

The exercises below will give you a taste of Tai Chi, but to gain real benefit from the fullness of this art it is best to find a qualified teacher with a good lineage and join a weekly class. There are also many weekend courses around, both residential and non-residential, which can give you a good basic grounding and help you to unwind and rejuvenate in the process.

It is worth checking with the instructor as to the emphasis of the class, i.e. whether the class is health orientated or martially orientated. Most classes are health orientated but include elements of martial practice so as to help the student to understand the original meaning and purpose of Tai Chi (which classically trained instructors should all be conversant with and practised in). To benefit from Tai Chi, knowledge of the martial art is not necessary, but for understanding Tai Chi in its fullness it is.

Finding a Qualified Teacher

There are two national registers of Tai Chi instructors. One is held by The Tai Chi Union For Great Britain (the largest) the other by The British Council For Chinese Martial Arts (Sports Council Recognised). It takes many years of study to teach Tai Chi well so it is worth finding a teacher with at least 4 years training behind them.

Basic Exercises

Open Tai Chi (Figs 1-3)

Begin with your feet shoulder-width apart and pointing forwards. Relax and stand normally but alert, paying attention to your body. Throughout the movement, keep your chest relaxed so that your breathing is uninhibited, and imagine you are moving through water. You can also refer to the Practical Outline section above for more detail.

Raise your hands/arms as effortlessly as you can to shoulder height, keeping the fingers naturally extended. Try not to raise your shoulders or tense your muscles.
Now relax and sink the shoulders and bend the elbows, imagining a thread is pulling them gently downwards. Relax and sink the wrists and press down gently with your palms. Sink at your hips, tilting your pelvis forwards (as if sitting), and bring your palms down to waist height. Keep your back raised as if you are suspended from your head top. This is known as 'the seated posture'. Repeat several times until you sense a flow in your movement.
This exercise is good for calming the mind and releasing blockages from the shoulders. It should be done at a slow pace so as to aid concentration and relaxation.

Parting the Wild Horse's Mane (Figs 3-7)

Starting from the end of the first movement, turn about 40 degrees to the right, raise your right palm to chest height and turn your left hand upwards to beneath your right hand, as if you are holding a large sphere (the centre line of which is opposite your own centre line). This is known as 'holding the ball'. Now turn back to face forwards and simultaneously raise your left hand upwards and slightly outwards in an arc while stroking downwards towards the side of the body with your right hand. From there, repeat on the left side as shown in the Figure. Parting the Wild Horse's Mane is good for gently massaging the internal organs. You may also sense the energy between the hands while 'holding the ball'.

References

1. Cheng John. Tai Chi Chuan: A slow dance for health. The Physician and Sports Medicine. 27(6) June 1999.
2. Gilbert John F and Moroney Robert. Master Zhu. Journal of Neurotherapy. 5.
3. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. 44(5): 489-97 May 1996.

Bibliography

Broda Linda Chase. Tai Chi and Special Needs. Village Hall Tai Chi Booklet. [DATE?]
Ching Cheng Man. Cheng Tzu's Thirteen Treatises on Tai Chi Chuan. North Atlantic Books. 1985.
Frantzis BK. The Power of Internal Martial Arts. North Atlantic Books. 1998.

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About Matthew Rochford

Matthew Rochford, BA, is Senior Instructor at The Devon School of Tai Chi Chuan. He has been studying Tai Chi and Chi Kung for over ten years and runs The Devon School of Tai Chi Chuan (part of The Wu Kung Federation), which provides courses to businesses and healing centres throughout the UK and Europe. He is one of the few Tai Chi teachers who actually hold a professional qualification (from Peter Warr, one of the most experienced practitioners in the UK). Matthew's work has been featured on BBC radio and Carlton TV. He has taught at The Mind Body Spirit Festival, is presently working with The Gaia Visions Retreat Centre on Zante, is a director of www.bluewatermusic.net and is pioneering a Tai Chi programme for prisons. For further information about upcoming courses, please contact Matthew on Tel: 01364 631 545; www.devontaichi.co.uk

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