Thom and I toyed with meditation on and off for several decades until we finally committed to a daily practice a little over four years ago. Then a couple of months ago Thom suggested we take a tai chi class together, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that tai chi is considered to be a “moving meditation.” In many ways, the experience of tai chi manages to broaden, deepen and enhance what we are already doing. But even more surprising, is how the practice of tai chi can help any of us create a very SMART, happy and harmonious way of life—365.
Most of us have seen the graceful and synchronized movements of tai chi from popular movies or even witnessed groups of people in the park as they practice. As author and practitioner Arthur Rosenfeld explains in his book Tai Chi—The Perfect Exercise, “Tai chi typically consists of a series of movements brought together like pearls on a string.” And while tai chi is certainly a system of movement, it is also so much more. In fact, Rosenfeld believes it to be the perfect exercise because “it conditions the body, grows the spirit and strengthens the mind.” Beyond that he says, “it is a philosophy that can be lived, a lifestyle through which we can realize high ideas, and a complete recipe for health, longevity, happiness and power.” How SMART is that?
Where did such a perfect practice come from? The oldest origins of tai chi developed out of the more traditional forms of martial arts used as self-defense. However, as Douglas Wile says in his book Lost T’ai-chi Classics from the Late Ch’ing Dynasty, “Chinese culture has taken the martial arts several steps further, merging them with meditation and inner alchemy, and finally presenting them as a path of ultimate self-realization through the Tao.” As I’ve explained in a previous post, the Tao, often referred to as “the way,” emphasizes a harmonious relationship between humanity, nature and the divine. Tai chi takes those ideas even further by managing external harmony and balance, with balance between the body, mind and soul.
While all that sounds very impressive, it should be noted that the goal of tai chi is never to get or have those things we strive to obtain. Nor will we ever “arrive.” Never are we doing it to impress others with a performance. In fact, as Rosenfeld says, “Tai chi teaches us that life is not all about getting things done; we know how it ends, so rushing through life is just senseless.”
Rosenfeld calls the practice an art and says, “It teaches us to be here now and treasure the journey over the destination. The art may even shake our inappropriate preoccupation with outcome and achievement.” Or as he repeats on more than one occasion, “as our inner life grows ever more luminous, the chatter of the speed-and-greed world slowly fades, leaving us with greater peace, tranquility, quiet and contentment.”
From the outside, tai chi looks pretty easy. Until I started taking tai chi I didn’t realize the multi-layered nature of the practice myself. While far more people are drawn to other martial arts or even yoga for specific results, tai chi is more concerned about the way the body works, than how it looks, offering layers of depth and complexity. That’s why Rosenfeld says is perfectly suited for “the seeker—the person who has an abiding sense that contrary to the shallow, hurried model we’re asked to embrace, there exists a deep, resource-rich alternative.” In other words, like so many things that matter in the world, tai chi is what we become as we develop slowly over time.
But make no mistake, even though the benefits to tai chi unfold slowly, they do happen. Our teacher at the local La Quinta Wellness Center is rather short and about equally as round. By her own admission she could barely walk when she started classes. Now she teaches tai chi six times a week and it’s clear to see it has transformed her life. Our teacher is proof that anyone, at any level of fitness can start and benefit from the practice, taking it as far as they want to go.
The health benefits of practicing tai chi include:
* Improved strength and better balance—particularly beneficial in cutting the risk of falls in older people.
* Reduces pain and stiffness in joints—shown to help those with low bone density, osteoporosis, and arthritis.
* Enhanced quality and duration of sleep.
*Increased immunity to shingles
* Improved cardiovascular fitness overall and lowers blood pressure.
* Aids breast cancer survivors.
* Aids stroke victims in relation to breathing, balance, stretching and mobilizing.
* Reduces symptoms of fibromyalgia and improves quality of life.
* Improves breathing
* Benefits type-2 diabetes by improving blood glucose.
* Boosts immune function.
* Lowers inflammation.
The psychological benefits of tai chi are:
* Reduces depression.
* Enhances self-efficacy (the confidence a person has to doing several things at once.)
* Lowers anxiety significantly.
* Boosts self esteem.
* Enhanced decision-making abilities.
* Improves attention, focus and concentration.
* Improve the quality and length of our lives.
Arthur Rosenfeld agrees that the tai chi practice offers all of the above benefits. He says, “There is even work underway to document how tai chi alters the structure of our DNA!” But he is also quick to caution that Western medicine is usually so focused on deconstructing things that they might miss the biggest advantages of tai chi—that of how things work together as an interconnected whole. That interconnection is our mind, body and spirit as well as the world around us.
Rosenfeld is also convinced that tai chi helps us change how we move through the world and creates “new patterns of perception and action” and “a harmonious mental state.” This change allows us to discover creative solutions to conflict or imbalance as well as make us more kind and compassionate from a place of a “deliberate act of consciousness.” By allowing us to “relax into the world,” tai chi is the “harmonious interplay” and perfect balance between the opposing forces of yin and yang everywhere present. Ultimately Rosenfeld says, “It trains us to be quiet, powerful, creative, responsive but non-reactive, free of plans and expectations and devoid of attachment to material things and internal feelings.”
Am I there yet? Not even close. Thom and I have just completed the beginner class and it’s time to move on to the intermediate phase. But as I hope I have explained, there is no rush to get there, and no end in sight. Tai Chi, like all meditations, are something to be practiced for a lifetime with layers upon layers of benefits. Will we stick with it forever? Who knows? Like Rosenfeld asks, who can realistically commit to a lover after a few dates? But after finding a moving meditation that so seamlessly fits into how I describe a SMART and happy life, the prognosis is favorable. What about you?
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bizz0k0/with/3431823635/