Time magazine published an article on why tai chi is the “perfect exercise” because of its ease and benefits. Have you considered the idea of Tai Chi as not only the “perfect exercise” but the “perfect medication?” Dr. Peter M. Wayne of Harvard Medical likens tai chi to a medication. Medications often have an active ingredient that is responsible for the curative or palliative effect patients experience when they take a dose. Using the idea of a medication, Dr. Wayne created a list of what he considers “the 8 active ingredients of tai chi. That is, the underlying mechanisms of tai chi that produce amazing benefits for participants. Those ingredients are:
Tai Chi is known as “meditation in motion.” Tai chi emphasizes the awareness of our body, mind and the world around us, as well as the interaction of the three systems. Tai chi teaches you to pay attention to your movements and the transition of your movements. This allows you to remain cognizant and engaged as you carry on your day to day activities. You are therefore more likely to avoid dysfunctional habits such as poor posture and movements that may lead to falls or painful muscles. Additionally, studies have shown that this focus improves your mental health. The thinking, mindfulness or awareness required and bolstered by tai chi has been shown to improve your cognitive ability and actually make your brain grow!
Tai chi encourages belief, thought or intention. Every movement in tai chi is a result of belief/intention. There is a connection between our thoughts, intentions and our body. Studies have shown that just imagining how you move may improve how you move. This type of mental activity (“motor imagery”) has been used by patients who suffered traumatic injuries and cannot move, as well as athletes in training to improve performance. Tai chi helps you move better and improve your posture by encouraging intention.
3. Structural Integration:
Tai chi examines the body as more than just a sum of its parts, but rather an interconnected system. When energy (Qi) moves freely in your body you are fit and healthy. However, if it is blocked or otherwise unable to flow in peak condition you become either physically ill or emotionally/mentally distressed. Tai chi also takes into account your connective tissues. Your body is rife with tendons, ligaments, fascia and loose connective tissue. This tissue wraps and holds different parts of your body together, including your vessels and organs. This system affects your health and especially your ability to move and remain pain-free. Tai chi focuses on integrating your body structure by correcting posture and alignment and using focused, slow and coordinated movements. The idea is that if one part of your body or your mind fails, then the rest fails as well.
4. Active Relaxation:
Unlike many physical activities, tai chi emphasizes moderation and relaxation. One of the benefits of tai chi is that it offers many of the same benefits as other rigorous activities while being kind to your body parts. This is especially important in older adults who are more fragile and heal slower. Tai chi employs a gradual approach to building strength and flexibility which allows your tissues to adapt and stretch rather than tear and heal. This is even more important for people who are ill or injured because their body is already compromised. Further deterioration or injury would not serve to alleviate their symptoms or encourage healing. The slow approach in tai chi also allows you to identify how you move and why certain movements cause pain and especially where the pain is referred from one body part to another.
Tai chi also emphasizes relaxation in a unique way. While encouraging a looser, freer, peaceful-breathing state, it encourages an “upright, three-dimensionally fuller, energized, dynamic, relaxed state.” Tai chi makes you aware of the biomechanical and “psychosocial tools” necessary to remain upright while aware of and avoiding tension, strain and your internal dynamics.
5. Strengthening and Flexibility:
Several studies have shown that tai chi provides some of the same benefits as more intense aerobic exercise. It burns calories, encourages cardiovascular health and improves flexibility. Additionally, it improves bone density and muscle strength, especially in the legs. That’s why tai chi is effective in the prevention of falls. Tai chi loosens and stretches muscles and the movements also lubricate the joints.
6. Natural, Freer Breathing:
Tai chi improves your posture, which allows you to inhale and exhale effortlessly and increase the volume of air you take in. You can breathe in more if you are upright, relaxed and open versus hunched over, slouched, tense and compressed. Your breathing may also be affected if you are stressed or panicked. Tai chi encourages a more relaxed breathing that involves deeper and slower breathing, unlike the shallow and rapid breathing associated with stress, which leads to the inability to rest and sleep. Additionally, breathing is also believed to provide an internal massage in your body which may affect the flow of blood and actually reduce pain.
7. Social Support:
One of the reasons people continue to participate in tai chi is the social aspect. It is a communal activity and a shared interest that brings people together. Numerous studies have shown that one of the leading causes of depression, isolation and low-self esteem is lack of an actual or even perceived social support system. Also, for reasons we don’t necessarily understand, the rate of illness and recovery among people with a strong social support system is different than those who do not have one. Social support seems to ward off illness and encourage recovery. Even those who practice tai chi at home alone feel they are a part of a larger community of tai chi practitioners. Tai chi coaches have been described as, “motivators, coaches,” and even “therapists.”
8. Embodied spirituality:
“The highly structured nature if tai chi practice along with social support provided within the tai chi community classes creates an organized, sometimes ritualized, framework for tangibly practicing, developing, translating, integrating these somewhat intangible philosophical principles into everyday life.”
When you consider the richness of tai chi practice, it is no wonder that it has so many benefits. The 8 active ingredients of tai chi come together to create what really is the “perfect exercise” or the “perfect medication.”