Harmony of Body, Mind & Energy – Tai Chi
‘Tai Chi Chuan’ or ‘Tai Ji Quan’ is a traditional Chinese exercise that seeks to enhance balance, body awareness, and overall well-being through deep diaphragmatic breathing and relaxation with slow, gentle movements. These gentle movements involve isometric and isotonic positioning of the hands, legs, waist, and spine. These movements should be performed effortlessly with one movement flowing into the next. Mental concentration is required to achieve harmony between body and mind. Tai Chi appears to look like a graceful dance, but many practitioners have described this exercise as a form of moving meditation. ‘Tai’ means highest, ‘Chi’ or ‘Ji’ means outermost point or peak or energy, whereas ‘Chuan’ or ‘Quan’ means balance, metaphorically action, a word that connotes power and control over one’s own actions. It also means to have immunity and immunity from destructive external forces and from poor health.
Philosophy of Tai Chi: ‘Tai Chi Chuan’ or ‘Tai Ji Quan’ also means Supreme Ultimate Reality. The only Reality is the NOW. Being in the present movement and achieving the maximum in the movement, is the hallmark of Tai Chi Chuan. Tai Chi Chuan is an art which drills individuals in being in the moment, both physically and mentally. It is a unique art, where most of the teaching of Vedanta, Ashta-vakra, Taoism, Confucian, Buddhism, etc. becomes part of the physical realm. It no longer remains a philosophical concept; it unfolds all philosophical concepts, into reality. Tai Chi is denoted with a peculiar emblem called Yin/Yang; it deals with dual polarities of life. The emblem is embossed in a circle with twin fish, one dark and one light, each trying to catch the others tail and within the dark circle there is a light circle and within the light circle there is a dark circle. The general public takes this symbol as a mark of ‘Balancement’.A prefect balance is a sign of decay, since there is no growth, but only constant tension and in tension there is neither creativity nor growth. Growth can happen if the darker or lighter side continuously waxes and wanes in a harmonious setting, without disturbing the other in total awareness.
Tai Chi deals with the flow, like the flow of water from the stream to the sea; it does not fight the obstacles but finds another path, another opening. So also Tai Chi teaches one to be flexible, adaptable, malleable, and more-over to flow in any given situation. The beauty behind this concept is, it teaches you not to crib over petty matters, but look at the larger picture and maintain the flow. Maintaining the flow is the life-force which we call as survival, when the flow becomes stagnant then one decay and rots, and slowly the individual, the system and the harmony of the whole as such, starts getting stagnant, till a major change is expected. Tai Chi has two major schools one is the public Tai Chi which one sees in the gardens and lawns of Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and many of the South Eastern Asian cities. While the other school is the temple Tai Chi which is seldom seen, it is usually practiced by monks for spiritual attainment. There may be few cases, where some of the general public gets a chance to learn this great art. Tai Chi is further divided into various families such as Chen, Yang, Wu, Sun, etc. No matter which style of Tai Chi one practices, one learns the form. The form is a set of sequence where one learns to co-ordinate the limbs in a perfect rhythm, in a harmonious unison, building neuro-muscular co-ordination.
Just practicing the rhythm and timing of the form, one feels the flow of life (life-force or bio- electric energy) and one becomes aware of that moment. But according to the temple style Tai Chi the form is just an external block or the structure. The emptiness or the vacuum within the structure is the most important space. The value of any structure lies in the emptiness, which can hold or bear any contents. As the practitioner goes through the form, he keeps on filling the form, with various content such as breath (gymnastic of breath), visualization (energy moving through the meridian or channels), emotion (observing the rise and fall of various sensation, which gives birth to different emotion and its physical counterparts) and ultimately the wild mind is harnessed in being in the present and avoiding any new buildup of patterns/action/fates/destiny/reflexes or Karmas (repeated action leading to similar circumstances, and similar reaction of one’s own emotion).
The form and its various contents teach the practitioner to be like a mirror which is the kunzhi (base) of one’s own individuality (the Self). Though the training sounds simple, but it could be quite a neurotic experience, if done wrongly. On the whole Tai Chi teaches one to take care of one’s physical, mental, energetic and spiritual development…
How does Tai Chi work? Tai Chi consists of relaxed, low impact movements of the arms and constant shifting of the legs to mimic animal movements. These flowing movements are linked together into a choreographed pattern called a, “form”. Through the practice of these forms, Tai Chi is designed to stimulate and balance the Chi “life force” in the body by improving muscle control and breathing. Although originally designed as a form of self-defense for monks, Tai Chi has evolved into an art that exercises the body and mind to promote health, wellness, and mental relaxation. Tai Chi is based on the concept of the yin energy (negative energy) and the yang energy (positive energy). An imbalance or obstruction of these forces results in health problems.
Tai Chi seeks to maintain a balanced, unblocked energy flow through proper breathing and well- balanced movement. As people age, certain postures and movements become more limited. Tai Chi seeks to improve range of motion in deficient areas by improving flexibility and strengthening muscles, which are involved with good posture and balance. Many practitioners notice benefits in terms of correcting poor postural, alignment or movement patterns, which can contribute to tension, or injury. Furthermore the meditative nature of these exercises is calming and relaxing. ‘Calmness within moving; moving within calmness’, that is a very important precept while practicing Tai Chi. But this calmness is not the same as going to sleep or losing consciousness; it means awareness. The mind should be calm; it is a serene awareness. The basis for good Tai Chi practice is a combination of relaxation combined with posture, mind and energy.
The Concept of Internal Energy: In Chinese philosophy and medicine there exists the concept of ‘chi’, a vital force that animates the body. One of the avowed aims of Tai Chi is to foster the circulation of this ‘chi’ within the body, the belief being that by doing so the health and vitality of the person are enhanced. Another aim of Tai Chi is to foster a calm and tranquil mind, focused on the precise execution of these exercises. Learning to do them correctly provides a practical avenue for learning about such things as balance, alignment, fine-scale motor control, rhythm of movement, the genesis of movement from the body’s vital center, and so on. The basis for good Tai Chi practice is a combination of ‘yi’ (mind), ‘zing’ (posture) and ‘chi’ (energy). Relaxation combines posture, mind and energy. With an increase of intrinsic energy, one’s interest is heightened, because the techniques involve change and nuance, awareness and mental alertness, one become more sensitive and capable of greater understanding.
The mind is concentrated. This basic principle of concentration where the mind directs the energy and the energy in turn exercises the body, which is a key factor in attaining the final objectives; acquiring energy without tenseness, strength without hardness, vitality without nervousness, and especially achieving tranquility. This is not the tranquility of inaction, but the tranquility of the following definition from I Ching, Book of Changes: “Tranquility is a kind of vigilant attention. It is when tranquility is perfect that the human faculties display all their resources, because they are enlightened by reason and sustained by knowledge”.
In order to achieve mental calmness never force the mind to concentrate on a particular point. This will leads to unbalanced chi and blood flow to the point of concentration, at the expense of the rest of the body. It is important to remember the flow of chi and follow the direction of the mind. Good posture will make the mind calm and the chi flow smoothly. Some has the belief that good posture meaning rooted or lower stance, but that is not the same as rooted. As a tree grows, not only do the roots increase in size and penetrate deeper into the earth, but also the branches and the leaves expand proportionally. To be rooted is to open the joint; the feet feel as if they are reaching deep into the earth. During practice, the spine seems to expand towards both the ground and the sky.
The high degree of concentration required in Tai Chi Chuan exercises also benefits the function of the central nervous system. Training the mind and the body at the same time, these exercises stimulate the cerebral cortex, causing excitation in certain regions and protective inhibition in others. This enables the cerebrum to rest and relieves the cerebral cortex of the pathological excitation caused by ailments, thus helping to cure certain nervous and mental diseases. Recent findings in physiology brain science and other related fields have further revealed that not only voluntary muscles are under the control of our mind.
But by focusing attention on certain parts of one’s body and thinking in a certain way, after a short period of training certain inner activities can be controlled or aroused by one’ mind as well. One successful experiment made in recent years in the West is the raising or lowering of fingertip temperature by the will of mind, which actually is the result of the opening or closing of the capillaries brought about by one’s focused thinking. This offers a scientific interpretation of the slight distension and wriggling often sensed by many Tai Chi practitioners in their fingertips or palm centers together with a visible reddening of these parts when their minds are focused on them. Sometimes one can also feel a stream of warmth running through a certain part of the body when performing a certain movement that could well be the widening of some bigger blood vessels, allowing more blood to circulate through.
According to the Tai Chi Chuan Classics, that something running inside is ‘chi, or prana, or internal energy’, and according to the traditional Chinese medical theory, ‘chi’ is something innate in man from birth, something invisible but vital to life. The free moving of ‘chi’ clears the way for the blood to circulate freely. ‘Chi’ circulates through its own network of main and collateral channels, on which the acupuncture points is distributed.
Benefits of Tai Chi: Practicing Tai Chi Chuan in the way of letting the mind direct the ‘chi’, and letting the ‘chi’ circulates through the body will greatly improve one’s health and lead to longevity. If one does not practice in a proper manner, he/she may receive some benefits, but not much more than spending the same amount of time walking or doing some calisthenics exercises. Regular practice of Tai Chi can increase the elasticity of the lung tissues, the respiratory magnitude of the chest (which helps to retard the ossification of the rib cartilages) and the ventilator capacity of the lungs and improves the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Keeping a part of or the entire body in a stretched or relaxed state alternatively is a good means of conserving energy and a way of letting the workload be shared evenly by the different parts of the body. This gentle art improves delivery of oxygen to the body’s cells, reduces stress and improves bowel functioning.
Chinese doctors have applied this art in hospitals and clinics to treat individuals suffering from a variety of ailments. These include allergies, arthritis, asthma, bowel problems, constipation, diabetes, gastritis, gout, headaches, heart disease and hypertension. The list goes on: chronic kidney disease, liver disease, lower back pain, Meniere’s disease, myopia, neurasthenia, paralysis induced by external injury, retinopathy (deterioration of the back of the eye), rheumatism, sciatic neuralgia, sleeplessness, stress, ulcers, and peripheral vascular disease. Tai Chi is especially useful in treating any kind of chronic pain, and chronic disorders of the digestive, respiratory, cardiovascular and nervous systems. Tai Chi can help to fight virtually many diseases, which the western doctors dismiss as untreatable ‘psychosomatic’.
How often should one practice Tai Chi? Tai Chi can be modified to fit into the lifestyle of busy individuals or complement more traditional workout programs. It can be practiced as a stand-alone program or can be incorporated into another training program, such as walking, jogging, swimming, weight lifting, etc. Ideally, Tai Chi should be practiced for 20 to 30 minutes at least 3 times per week. Tai Chi program can be customized to fit any intensity level for any type of individuals. One can start at a lower level with 5 minutes once per week and gradually build up to the above ideal recommendations. The goal of practicing Tai Chi is to make our chi circulate strongly in our bodies. This helps us resist or overcome imbalances or blockages and their resulting disharmonies, which is also the goal of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. The art of Tai Chi thus plays a fully active role to prevent disease or permit recovery.
Conclusion: The practice of Tai Chi Chuan is a way to develop both body and mind to such a degree that one can retard old age and make spring eternity. At the same time as it strengthens and revitalizes the body, it helps the cultivation of a calm heart, and enables the mind to function with more awareness, clarity, and concentration. Keeping the mind free from unnecessary thoughts it enhances awareness of both the internal and external conditions, but more important, constant worry and mental chatter exhaust energy. Most people die not from old age, but from sickness. Sickness is caused by the imbalance of Yin (negative energy) and Yang (positive energy). This imbalance precedes illness and contributes to it. Constant mental stress and activity are the main factors, which exhausts the body and unbalances its energies.
Tai Chi Chuan harmonizes the circulation of the various vital currents and unties the knots or pressure blocking the process of assimilation. It aims at the cultivation of temperament. The balance of movements and the way of using slowness, lightness, and calmness helps to relax nervous temperaments, and give one an easy pace and, therefore, a good disposition and one can get rid of one’s arrogance and conceit. Since every movement is anticipated by the mind, it develops patience and control of temper. It also develops equilibrium between the heart and mind. The benefits of Tai Chi Chuan are intellectual and psychological too. One can more easily adjust oneself to meet the various changes in stimuli of one’s environment with steady equanimity. As it is generally done slowly and gently, it is not too hard a task even for the aged or the weak. Those suffering from chronic illness, such as high blood pressure or pulmonary tuberculosis, this exercise are very beneficial, since there is no oxygen debt.