Health Benefits of Tai Chi and Qigong Practice
People I speak to often seem a little confused about just what is involved in the practice of Tai Chi and Qigong, and to be unaware that it is actually a very effective means of exercising our body and mind. It seems that I am perhaps somewhat unusual in choosing to take up the practice of this art when I was a younger man, but I sincerely hope that young people will also see how the benefits discussed below could have an impact in their life. For me, the incredible feeling of joy and energy that I experienced after my very first class – and still feel to this day – was more than enough to convince me that these deceptively simple looking exercises were well worth my time. That said, they are also a fantastic way to care for our bodies as we age and may help us to rediscover some of the youthful vigour that we perhaps lost along the way. We never know where our lives might lead and what health issues we might face, but Tai Chi and Qigong exercise strike me as a very sensible way to prepare for whatever life throws at us. In what follows I have taken six areas of health benefit discussed in Dr Peter Wayne's Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi and added my own thoughts and descriptions as to how our classes can help.
1. Improving Balance by Moving with Grace and Fluidity
As we move through the Tai Chi form, we are constantly shifting our body weight from one leg to the other, and with each step we are passing through a point of ‘central balance’. This means that we are seeking to find perfect balance over one foot before lifting and placing our other foot back on the ground. Then, when we place our foot back on the ground we always ‘step empty’ which means that we do not transfer any weight to the placed foot until we are ready to do so. From a martial perspective this means that we are always ready to withdraw our foot without committing to the step.
This emphasis on balance combined with slow movement from one posture to the next can help us to gain a much better awareness of where we are in space. However, Tai Chi is not always practiced slowly and we say that we ‘practice slowly in order to be able to perform quickly’. Tai Chi is at heart a martial art and, in a fight, it would not do to move at the speed of a feather falling to the ground. Instead, we learn to move slowly so that we can understand how to integrate our whole body into the movement; then, when we understand how the Tai Chi principals are expressed through our body, we will be able to move quickly without losing our connection to the earth.
In Tai Chi and Qigong practice we also have the saying that, ‘if one part moves then all parts move’. This means that every part of our body is incorporated into any of the movements we practice – from the toes of our feet all the way through to the crown of our head and the tips of our fingers. We put a strong emphasis on good posture in all of our movements, and we seek to move from the centre of our body, which helps us to develop a more stable and ‘grounded’ movement.
Dr Shen would often talk about how children are exemplars of good health when it comes to the upper and lower parts of our bodies – as children our limbs are soft and supple so we have a good connection with the earth and our upper body can move freely, but as we age our limbs become stiff so that we lose our solid connection with the earth and our upper body is blocked. Tai Chi and Qigong practice help us to return to this childlike state of activity.
2. Soothing Aches and Pains by Mindfully Stretching our Bodies
The emphasis on correct posture in Tai Chi and Qigong means that they are a great way to address the pain associated with poor posture. Dr Shen would teach that long standing poor body posture can lead to pathogenic narrowing of the intervertebral spaces, and that this in turn can lead to painful conditions where the vertebral bodies touch the nerve roots. The stretching and opening of the spine promoted by Tai Chi and Qigong exercise therefore allows body fluids to return to the nuclei of the vertebral disks so that they can regain their springiness. This stretching can also create more space for blood vessels around the spine and thereby improve circulation and health.
In class, it is very common for us to start by working through the joints in our body seeking to find a balance between opening and relaxing. We learn to spiral our feet down into the ground and this can help to open our ankle joints as well as the knee, hip, and sacroiliac joints; then, by combining breath and body movement we bring this stretching and opening all the way up our spinal column, through to the crown of our head, and down to the ends of our fingers.
The awareness of posture, that we develop through our practice, also carries over into our daily life and over time we can learn to avoid falling back into the poor postural habits that are causing us pain. Dr Shen would often say ‘give your worst enemy a sofa’, and this was his way of joking about the damage that we do to ourselves with our modern sedentary lives, as well as the fact that sofas promote such a poor sitting position.
Tai Chi practice is a very good way to develop greater awareness of our own bodies which allows us to develop greater sensitivity to what is happening there. We can become aware of how our poor life choices impact on our bodies and we can notice little aches and niggles before they turn into something more serious. Then, by carefully applying the principles of Tai Chi and Qigong practice we can help to clear away these problems and regain our health.
3. Strengthening our Heart with Vigorous and Challenging Movement
Although Tai Chi and Qigong practice may appear to be gentle, flowing movement from the outside, we must remember that these exercises are what the Chinese call internal arts. This can mean a number of different things, but one aspect is the manner in which the qualities of the exercise are not obviously visible from the outside. This can refer to those aspects of opening and relaxing through the body discussed above, but it can also refer to the manner in which a practitioner chooses to sink into the Tai Chi and Qigong postures.
A deeper posture requires our leg muscles to work strongly and, combining this with very slow movement, can make the exercise rather more demanding. On the other hand, we can choose not to sink so low and to move through the postures at a somewhat faster pace in order to lessen the intensity of the exercise. In Tai Chi and Qigong practice we can work with whatever our current physical and mental makeup might be, attempting to restore health and well-being in whatever capacity is available to us. In practical terms, we can increase the intensity of the exercises for those with more vigour, and can often modify them for those who find the exercises too demanding.
4. Deepening our Breathing for Greater Relaxation and Energy
The word ‘Qigong’ is a combination of two Chinese characters: the character ‘qi’ which can mean a number of different things, but in this case is quite readily translated as ‘breath’; and, the character ‘gong’ which can be translated as ‘skill’. Therefore, ‘Qigong’ can be understood to mean something like ‘breathing skill’ and one who has ‘Qigong’ could be said to have ‘skill in breathing’. In Tai Chi and Qigong practice we use the breath in a variety of ways to calm our minds and to move our bodies.
When we practice, we bring awareness to our out-breath and, as we breathe out, we learn to soften the front of our bodies so that this breath can reach all the way down to our dantian. This can result in very calm states of mind and, in the case of Tai Chi and moving Qigong practice, we then carry this tranquillity through into the movements of the form – going from tranquillity into movement. Then, at the end of this movement, we return once again to tranquillity, so that the peace and energy we experience at the end of our practice can carry over into our everyday lives.
In class, we also learn to perform negative abdominal breathing which means that we pull in the lower abdomen and pull up the perineum when we breathe in. On a physical level this helps to strengthen the pelvic floor and to massage the internal organs, but on a more subtle level it allows us to draw this feeling of stretching and opening through our spine. In this way, we use our breath to expand and open our bodies, and incorporate this subtle expansion into all of the exercises that we perform. When these two breaths are combined, we complete what is knows as the ‘small circulation’ which is a wonderful exercise that can lead to even deeper states of meditative calm.
5. Sharpening our Mind Through Ongoing Challenge and Growth
Learning the Tai Chi form requires understanding the basic principals of Tai Chi practice, and being able to realise these principals within our bodies as we flow gracefully from one position to the next. These can be somewhat complicated manoeuvres and require us to deal with a number of moving parts until we ultimately reach the stage in which our body, breath and mind are integrated into one flowing, harmonious whole.
Even then, however, there is still more to do as we work through longstanding blockages and seek to refine our ability to express the subtle Tai Chi forces through our body. Dr Shen would like to translate ‘Tai Chi’ as meaning something like ‘unlimited expansion’ and this limitless nature of the practice means that there are always more areas to develop – even if we reach the limits of physical possibility we can still expand through the practice of meditation.
At first, we are simply trying to remember the sequence of postures that we have learned, and how we need to move our bodies from one position to the next. We are working to clear and open any physical and energetic blockages that have developed in our bodies. Here, we must bring awareness into our movements in order to feel where we are creating tension and experiencing pain, then we can use this awareness to help relax and guide the pain out of our bodies. We are stretching and opening in order to enliven the area in our lower belly known as the dantian.
Once this area becomes active, all of our movements are led by the turning of the dantian. At this stage we can say that our mental intention (yi) is leading our dantian, and this in turn is leading the movement of qi around our body. This means that for every Tai Chi and Qigong posture that we perform we must have a clear mental intention, and we must maintain this intention throughout our performance of the Tai Chi form. This helps us to keep a strong one-pointed attention, and also to develop a very good connection between our body and mind.
6. Enhancing our Well-Being by Clearing Away Old Problems
As mentioned above, Tai Chi and Qigong are methods of internal exercise and this means that in addition to the general well-being that normal physical exercise brings, we can work with our body on a more subtle level. According to Tai Chi and Qigong theory we carry negative emotional states encoded into our bodies – for example, long-term anger and frustration leading to tightness in the diaphragm, or long-term sadness and grief leading to a collapsing of the chest. Then, over time it becomes difficult to say whether it is our negative emotions affecting our body posture or our body posture affecting our emotions.
Through many of the principles discussed in this article we can break this vicious circle, either by emptying our minds through meditation or by changing our body posture through physical practice. Thus, as unhelpful emotions are cleared from our mind, we find that it becomes clearer and more flexible; and, as our body becomes more open, we find that health and happiness naturally follow. These then are two of the simplest ways in which we can understand the many benefits of Tai Chi and Qigong practice, and it is also the reason why we chose to name our school, ‘Tai Chi for Health and Happiness’.
For more information on what to expect from a Tai Chi or Qigong class with our school, please click here.
The images on this page are extracted from a reconstruction of the Daoyin tu found in the Hunan Provincial Museum. You will find a full original copy of this picture in the Wellcome Collection. The Wellcome Collection also holds an image of the original chart excavated from a tomb in Hunan Province in 1973 here.
The six areas of benefit discussed in this article are drawn from the work of Dr Peter Wayne, to which I have added my own thoughts and descriptions of our practice. For more information on the health benefits of Tai Chi please see: Wayne, P. (2013) The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi; Shambala: Boulder or see his website at http://www.treeoflifetaichi.com/index.php.