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III. How It Works
Tai Chi is one of some two hundred martial art forms. Martial art is a method of self-defense, a way to improve one’s general health, and a way to establish a stronger mind-body connection. Martial arts need to be sub classified because of the wide variety. Primarily, the form must be classified using physical technique as either striking or grappling. Striking involves percussive blows such as in karate. Grappling involves wrestling techniques that empower individual control such as in judo. Certain types of martial arts require weapons but only spears or knives, never are guns used. The two ways to teach martial arts are through traditional focus and nontraditional focus. The traditional focus pertains to spiritual development, discipline, and aesthetic form. The nontraditional focus deals with combat, discipline, and spiritual development. The non-traditionalists teach the importance of self-defense while the traditionalists teach self-improvement.
The roots of Tai Chi can be traced to early yoga in ancient India. The dates begin in the second millennium B.C. Tai Chi is a way of taking oneself back to the essential basics of existence. Yoga transitioned in China to Saolin chuan, meaning boxing. “In the 13th century A.D., a Taoist monk by the name of Chang Sang Feng developed what has come to be known as Tai Chi. Subsequently Tai Chi came to be associated with different families in China. These family names came to designate the different styles of Tai Chi. A man by the name of Yang, subsequently studied with the Chen family and later modified the Chen style, thus developing the Yang style of Tai Chi Chuan (http://www.geocities.com/SouthBeach/Sands/3390/tc.htm).” Tai Chi has since transitioned and evolved but manages to keep its principles intact.
Tai Chi movements include names and a direction to face. For example, single wipe is done while facing west. The five elements of Taoism are fire (opening), earth (connecting), metal (releasing), water (aligning), and wood (trusting). “The ancient Taoists felt that we, as humans, were unique in that our need and potential was to create a balance of all five elements in order to achieve maximal health. Through diet, attunement to our environment, and movement practice, one has the opportunity to access these energies. The five elements provide guiding principles for physiology, pathology, diagnosis, and therapy in traditional Chinese medicine (http://www.geocities.com/SouthBeach/Sands/3390/5elements.htm).” The five elements in terms of direction are as follows: wood is to east, fire is to south, earth is to center, metal is to west, and water is to north. By understanding the principles of Taoism, including the five elements, the positions of Tai Chi can be understood and practiced.
Most sports or exercises only concentrate on physical activity. Due to the East Asian development of Tai Chi, philosophical interest is incorporated as well. The major mind influence of Tai Chi is that of Taoism. It uses physical and mental exercises to enhance the mind-body connection and empower the individual. After practicing Tai Chi, one will feel rejuvenated, in touch with his emotional side, confident, and less anxious. Tai Chi teaches one to feel comfortable with himself therefore enabling him to feel in control of his life. “The interaction of Yin and Yang is vital to the practice of Tai Chi Chuan since physically and mentally the practitioner is continually shifting between empty (Yin) and full (Yang) and soft (Yin) and hard (Yang) to achieve an evolving equilibrium. Diligent practice of Tai Chi Chuan also increases self-knowledge and self-mastery. It leads to a greater appreciation of one’s self and others. Tai Chi Chuan is intimately connected with Qigong, also known as chi kung or chi gong, an ancient Chinese discipline that involves the mind, breath, and movement to create a calm, natural balance of energy. One of the best kinds of Qigong is Tai Chi Chuan, which combines mind, body movement, and spirit (http://www.tai-chi.com/geninfo/tccuses.htm).” This mind-body connection maximizes an individual’s potential to be the best he can be.
The primary martial arts are the Chinese arts of karate, tae kwon do, and kung fu. The secondary martial arts of the Japanese are jujutsu (art of gentleness), judo (gentle way), and aikido (way of harmony). Tai Chi Chuan, a form of kung fu, Chinese for skill and ability, translates to “great ultimate fist or force” in Chinese. It uses openhanded techniques as opposed to the close-handed techniques in karate (empty hand in Chinese). The components that make up the Northern Chinese kung fu (soft movements mainly of the lower body) and Southern Chinese kung fu (strength and attack method) are the philosophy, types of blows, and methods of practice. The methods in Tai Chi are slowly circular and continuous. This is a main reason for its popularity. It strengthens and tones while allowing the person to relax and enjoy the exercise.
Martial arts have become a popular exercise method in recent years. Kickboxing or Tae Bo are found in most any gym across the United States. Members of these gyms love the killer workout these methods provide. An essential respect is acknowledged for these methods of exercise. The first time Americans encountered martial arts was during the 1840s when Chinese immigrants came to the United States. Most people realize the discipline that truly entails the practice of martial arts. The arts are being highly publicized by movies such as “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” or the Jackie Chan in which he uses martial arts to fight the bad guys and becomes a hero.
The underlying theme in Tai Chi is that of Yin and Yang to create harmony in nature. Yin is the negative, feminine force while Yang is the masculine, positive force. These are forces that are opposing but complement each other. This establishes a natural balance into the practice. In ethics, there are rights and wrongs to each intention, action, and consequence. It makes sense that creating a mental and physical balance together would overall increase an individual’s health. Qi, also known as chi, is the energy or life force in Chinese medicine. Tai Chi is an exercise that harnesses and enhances the flow of this energy, which is supposed to ward off diseases and bodily harm. “Tai Chi…is so much of you recruited into each moment, and on so many levels that it seems there is a symphony of sensation, perception and ability integrated into a centrally balanced and fluid consciousness. You are in charge, yet one with the flow. Quite exciting, while calming and relaxing. And this brings up another set of distinctions-unity of opposites (http://lifematters.com/taijin.html).” Tai Chi is a way to achieve two goals at the same time. By exercising you are strengthening your body and by relaxing you are bettering your mind.
A Website entitled “Tai Chi Chuan” describes five emotional components of Tai Chi practice. “The first secret is the tranquility of the mind. This tranquility is the basis for concentration and alertness. Another secret is that the body should always be relaxed and agile. This results in apparent peacefulness and gracefulness. Other secrets include gathering the chi to penetrate the entire body, unifying the strength of the whole body, and developing the chi into spirit (http://members.tripod.com/~zenist/taichi.html).”
In a study conducted at La Trobe University in Australia in the early 1990s, 48 men and 48 women broke up into four groups after enduring stressful events. The groups consisted of those who briskly walked, those who meditated, those who read neutral material, and those who practiced Tai Chi. “Tai Chi was found to be as effective as meditation and brisk walking and more effective than reading in reducing levels of catecholamines, or stress hormones. There are no reports of injuries related to tai chi in the medical literature. If it appeals to you, there is little reason not to try it as a means of increasing strength, flexibility, balance, and equanimity (Tai Chi).” Exercise has been found to release endorphins, which create a feeling of happiness. Meditation brings the mind and body to a state of relaxation. Tai Chi is a way to combine the best of both worlds. Its no wonder this study proved successful in advocating Tai Chi.
“Doctors suspect chronic hyperventilation is being many psychological ailments. ‘Hyperventilation can magnify any psychological disorder or emotional conflict,’ says Dr. Herbert Fensterheim, a clinical professor of psychology in psychiatry at Cornell University Medical College in New York City. ‘The trigger doesn’t have to be negative, either. Depending on the person, any emotional stimulation can set off overbreathing.’ (Flippin).” In our modern society, one focuses on money and power. We have many high power executives with high blood pressure and unbalanced health. This shows, as a society, we do not place value on inner strength and wellness, but on superficial goods. Tai Chi is a relaxing exercise that can take one back to the important things in life such as health and human relations. It calms the mind and the body and focuses on happiness with oneself in turn creating a better person for society. Dr. Fensterheim explains the damage caused by lack of attention to the emotional and psychological well-being.
Tai Chi: Physiological Characteristics and Beneficial Effects on Health. The first research finding of Tai Chi on health was in Xu Zhi-Yi’s book published in 1927 in which he explained, “…the beneficial impact of Tai Chi Chuan on the physiology, psychology, and kinesiology of the human body (British Journal of Sports Medicine).” The two main questions involved in the study of health effects of Tai Chi: 1) Do health benefits from Tai Chi Chuan exist? 2) What is the principle for their existence?
The initial use of TCC was for self-defense purposes but over the years, it has transitioned to the purpose of internal homeostasis. The Chinese University of Hong Kong’s department of Sports Science and Physical Education conducted cumulative studies to determine the physiological characteristics and beneficial effects of Tai Chi Chuan (also known as TCC) on the health. The objective was to find the effects of Tai Chi Chuan on metabolism, cardio respiratory response and function, mental control, immune system workings, and as a preventative safety to the elderly. They found after testing 2216 male and female subjects, “TCC is a moderate intensity exercise that is beneficial to cardio respiratory function, immune capacity, mental control, flexibility, and balance control; it improves muscle strength and reduces the risk of falls in the elderly (British Journal of Sports Medicine).”
Tai Chi Chuan has several beneficial characteristics including metabolic responses, cardiovascular responses, ventilatory responses, balance, stability, strength, cardio respiratory function, mental control, and overall improvement of the immune system. This study found higher oxygen uptake levels in those who practiced Tai Chi Chuan, leading to better microcirculation, and expenditure levels in terms of metabolic responses. The cardiovascular testing showed the mean heart rate level at 74 beats per minute raised to 95 to 98 beats per minute after practicing the simplified 24 form Tai Chi Chuan, a credential of moderate exercise classification. A main purpose of the ventilatory response is to study the benefit of breathing through the diaphragm slowly and deeply. This type of breathing allows the exercise to be more efficient because of the oxygen intake.
In terms of balance, stability, and strength, Tai Chi Chuan has proved effective for increasing each of these. They did tests using vision as a variable and found it had nothing to do with the positive benefits. Tai Chi Chuan is a form of exercise that allows those with vision problems to still participate and reap the benefits. During the study of the elderly, the researchers concluded it improved joint pain while increasing balance, stability, and strength. Many other exercises produce similar results, however, these do not have the bonus of low impact, which is what allows the elderly population to participate. A major study of the elderly and Tai Chi pertains to the decreased rate of falls. This is because of the increase of strength and stability this population has more confidence and physical health and therefore does not fall as easily. To test the cardio respiratory function, researchers divided the elderly into two groups, the sedentary control group and the active Tai Chi Chuan practicing group. After two years, the active group’s level in terms of functioning decline was 2.8% for men and 2.9% for women. The sedentary group’s levels were 6.6% and 7.4% respectively.
“Tai Chi philosophy recognizes that mental attitude can cause physiological change, which in turn affects the quality of movement. Mental stress is known to make movement quick, tight, and erratic, which is quite the opposite of the graceful and flowing movement required in TCC practice (British Journal of Sports Medicine).” Mental control is a benefit of practicing Tai Chi. Due to the deep breathing and stretching positions, Tai Chi produces an internal well being which, in turn, translates to a positive outer well being and feeling of individual control. The confidence and motivation of Tai Chi comes from the good feelings of endorphins after exercise but also because of the relaxation, which is a characteristic specific to Tai Chi.
The functioning of the immune system for the purpose of Tai Chi was done with blood work. Two positive findings were the increase in the level of IgG in men and the decrease in IgM in women and the raised level of natural killer cells in the peripheral blood. More research entails, however, this positive find gives hope to the other possible immune benefits of Tai Chi. This compilation of studies written up in the British Journal of Sports Medicine provides a comprehensive summary of the benefits of Tai Chi Chuan to the physical and mental health.
Changes in Heart Rate, noradrenaline, cortisol, and mood during Tai Chi. A study of Tai Chi of the department of psychology in La Trobe University, Bundoora, Australia, set out to find the changes in physiological and psychological functioning. Measures were taken before the experiment, which included three variables of experience, time, and phase. Tai Chi was found to have, “…raised heart rate, increased noradrenaline excretion in urine, and decreased salivary cortisol concentration. Relative to baseline levels, subjects reported less tension, depression, anger, fatigue, confusion and state-anxiety, they felt more vigorous, and in general they had less total mood disturbance (Jin P.).” These effects are similar to those of moderate exercise.
Tai Chi: Meditative Movement for Health. Tai Chi is a “low impact way to improve strength, flexibility, and sense of balance (Harvard Women’s Health Watch).” One important benefit of Tai Chi for the elderly population is that it reduces frailty. This is a type of exercise most senior citizens can actually participate in. Because Tai Chi is form composed of fluid movements, relaxation occurs naturally. There are various types of Tai Chi that suit a variety of people. For example, Wu uses mid paced and compact movements; Yang incorporates slow, grand movements; and Sun uses quick, compact movements. To determine the effects of blood pressure, Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions conducted a study of two sedentary, elderly groups. One practiced Tai Chi and the other participated in a moderately intense aerobic exercise program. After twelve weeks of this program, participants in both groups experienced a drop in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
Emory University conducted a similar study to that at Johns Hopkins. They found the elderly increased their balance and strength. “Among the possibilities are improved elasticity in ligaments and tendons, stronger knee flexors and extensors, and better postural control.” Doctors have also found Tai Chi to be successful in reducing joint swelling and improve range of motion in people who suffer from osteoarthritis. “Tai Chi is also under study as a complement to traditional medical treatment of musculoskeletal and neuromuscular diseases such as multiple sclerosis.”
Tai Chi Chuan. A publication in The Physician and Sports Medicine states the importance of Tai Chi Chuan perfectly as “Tai Chi Chuan: A Slow Dance for Health.” This is the essence of Tai Chi. The goal is to promote body awareness or proprioception. Tai Chi is a safe form of exercise because participants are instructed of their limitations. There are different levels of intensity to modify the individual Tai Chi program. This program should be practiced twenty to thirty minutes at least three times a week to reap health benefits.
The Brown University Long-Term Care Quality Letter. Tai Chi stresses the avoidance of force based on the Taoist religion. The main principle was to avoid combat by using the opponent’s force to one’s advantage. Tai Chi is a type of mediation but in movement. The goals are to find stability, balance, and strength within. “At the end of a tai chi session, even though you haven’t run anywhere, lifted anything, or jumped up and down, your breathing should be deep, your muscles flushed and your mind refreshed- a feeling that should carry through for the rest of the day (Shine).” Shine is a tai chi practitioner who used to instruct at Harvard University.
In America, we neglect the use of osteopathy and alternative medicines. We look to East Asia with respect but feel it would be easier to take a drug instead of working through our pain internally. For example, Prozac is widely prescribed to ease depression. People see Prozac as an easy way to heal instead of healing the true problems within. This serves only as cover up cure. The real problem will eventually surface. Had the patient initially dealt with it, it would not persist and his happiness would be pure, rather than a symptom of medication. James S. Gordon, a psychiatrist and founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, says, “…Misfiring neurotransmitters are not the cause of depression but instead a symptom of entire lives that have become unbalanced through ill health, quirky genes, and psychic distress. By that logic, then, a chronically depressed person’s best chance at a lifelong cure is to marshal every health-enhancing tool on God’s green earth—nutritious foods, exercise, meditation, acupuncture, human connection—to right his body and brain chemistry, rather than relying on drugs (Carlin).” Tai Chi fundamentals incorporate natural health to form overall, longer lasting, better quality health. Gordon says, “I have never seen anyone transformed by Prozac. I’ve seen people feel better, but cocaine makes you feel better, too. Why not find wholeness your own way?” This provides long-term results rather than short-term relief.
Tai Chi is an excellent way to better one’s health and decrease stress. The best way to learn more is to attend a martial arts studio that specializes in Tai Chi. The Internet offers good ideas in terms of research pertaining to Tai Chi, however, if you are interested in technique only a master of the martial arts will be able to give proper instruction. Tai Chi balances out the mind and body in using the Yin and Yang correctly. We often forget to revert to the basics for strength and health; these are the most important elements according to Tai Chi and ancient East Asian philosophy. Rather than
relying on medicines we should first try to harness the circular flow of our chi and improve ourselves within.
Most research findings in terms of benefits to the mind, body, and soul are positive. However, many of these general physical health improvements are due to the presence of any type of exercise whatsoever, not necessarily due to Tai Chi. Exercise has been proven to do wonders for the human health. Tai Chi is a form of exercise which guarantees improvements if done correctly. Tai Chi is accountable for an additional relaxed state, which allows the mind to function more clearly, also a similar effect of endorphins. Tai Chi Chuan can allow the mind, body, and soul to function together creating a holistic moderate exercise that is healthy for the entire self. This ancient martial arts practice, a positive release of energy, functions as an effective method of becoming more in tune with one’s physical, mental, and spiritual self.
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