Some Benefits of Doing T’ai Chi
Strength of Bodily Organs and Glands
Many exercises emphasize primarily strengthening muscles and the cardiovascular system. T’ai Chi emphasizes strengthening not just the heart and lungs but strengthening and balancing the functions of all of the organs and glands. T’ai Chi also strengthens the immune system. T’ai Chi practice helps to release unneeded muscular tension, which cuts off circulation of blood, lymph, and ch’i. This release allows the organs to have needed movement and lowers blood pressure. T’ai Chi practice promotes flow of ch’i by releasing blockages from habitual muscular fixations (acupuncture w/o the needles). Read a biological interpretation of ch’i. Note that recently published studies have confirmed that those who do T’ai Chi have improved blood pressure and are much less susceptible to falls and their resulting injuries.
In doing T’ai-Chi movement, one relaxes muscular contraction completely. The full weight of the body stretches the leg muscles to their limit, thereby strengthening them. This way of strengthening is opposite to that of most other kinds of exercise, which utilize contraction of muscles (as in weight lifting or bicycling). In doing T’ai Chi, the leg muscles become slender with increased range of motion, whereas in other leg-strengthening exercises, the muscles become bunched and less flexible. It is common for T’ai-Chi practitioners to continue practicing into their eighties and nineties, but those who do sports or weightlifting usually do not. And because T’ai Chi provides endless fascination and possibilities for growth, it is more apt to be practiced life-long.
Maintaining strong legs into old age is of paramount importance. Observe how many elderly people lack the leg strength to walk without a cane or are unable to easily rise from a chair.
Opening and Closing of the Thigh Joints
The thigh joints, which are the largest joints in the body, have two basic actions. One is a swiveling motion, which occurs when the knee is brought forward or back. The other action is an opening and closing action, which occurs when the knee is arced horizontally inward or outward or when the lower leg is arced in a frontal plane. The opening and closing of the thigh joints is very important for increasing flexibility and for promoting the circulation of blood and ch’i to the vital organs in the lower part of the trunk. Only the swiveling action occurs in most exercises such as walking, running, and cycling (outdoors—or indoors on a stationary bike). In T’ai Chi, however, both swiveling and opening and closing actions take place in myriad combinations.
Activation of the Nervous System
For many exercises, the mind is barely involved. Peddling an exercise bike or utilizing a treadmill or other such exercise machines has become very popular. The boring, repetitive nature of such exercise, albeit beneficial, creates the need to divert the mind by simultaneously watching television, reading, or listening to music. As a result, the mind is not actively engaged in the exercise, and little if anything is learned from doing it. However, in doing T’ai Chi, one’s mind is actively involved—so much so that sustaining the awareness to the depth required is a challenge. Attempting to increase the engagement of the mind is exactly what enables its development. Also, doing T’ai Chi involves a constantly changing, heightened neural activity: The brain actively receives neural sense data from the body, processes it, and sends neural information back to the muscles, and this activity is constantly changing. The result is greatly improved coordination and the ability to respond appropriately to one’s physical environment.
The electrical currents produced by the heightened neural activity stimulate cells, producing movement within them. This intracellular movement promotes cellular elimination of waste products and absorption of oxygen and nutrients. Of course, such movement is enabled by the relaxed muscular tension that is characteristic of T’ai-Chi. Whereas certain other exercises involve heightened neural action, these exercises do not involve the relaxed muscular action of T’ai Chi, which is an essential component in allowing the cellular movement that results in a cleansing and nutritional benefit.
T’ai Chi is renowned for improving balance, and studies have shown that those who practice T’ai Chi fall less frequently and are injured less when they do fall. Here are some of the reasons for this benefit:
(1) The transitions in T’ai-Chi movement require stepping with all the weight on one leg and not committing the weight to the stepping foot before that foot is touching the ground. This way of stepping is referred to as “stepping like a cat.” The result is that each step in T’ai Chi requires balance, which improves with T’ai-Chi practice. Also, the sensitivity developed by stepping like a cat leads a T’ai-Chi practitioner to be much more able to sense a hole or unevenness in the ground that might cause a fall.
(2) One of the most basic principles of T’ai-Chi movement is to rid the body of contractive muscular strength. Doing so lowers the center of gravity of the body, which results in more stability and in less harm to the body if it contacts the ground. Moreover, the strength of a T’ai-Chi practitioner’s legs helps to make adjustments needed when balance threatens to be lost.
Letting go of contractive muscular tension is very beneficial to the body because it allows blood, lymph, and ch’i to flow more naturally. This natural flow helps the tissues to receive needed oxygen and nutrients and release wastes. But this release also leads to the receptive state of mind necessary for releasing preconceptions and wrong thinking. Here is why: Our fears and memories of past traumas are often embedded in our habitual muscular tensions, which probably is the reason that releasing these tensions is so difficult. Releasing these tensions requires dealing on some level (probably not consciously) with one’s associated memories and fears. The result is an increased openness and ability to release obstacles to our thinking objectively and clearly. An expression used in Spiritual Teachings is, “An empty cup holds the most.” The less attached we are to our unnecessary emotional and intellectual baggage, the more open we are to receiving what we need for our development from our interactions with our environment and other people.
T’ai Chi, more than perhaps any other exercise, involves passive movement. The distinction between active and passive movement is as follows: In active movement, the muscles undergo lengthening or shortening by extending or contracting, respectively. In passive movement, the muscles undergo lengthening or shortening by external agents such as gravity, momentum, centrifugal effect, water (as in a Jacuzzi), or another person (such as in massage).
Active movement through muscular contraction tends to cut off blood, oxygen, and ch’i to the surrounding tissues and produces lactic acid, a waste product. Passive movement enhances the flow of blood, oxygen, and ch’i to the surrounding tissues and helps to eliminate waste products such as lactic acid. It is a good possibility that much of the health benefit of practicing T’ai Chi stems from its emphasis on passive movement.
Use of Muscular Extension
Correct T’ai-Chi movement cultivates the use of muscular extension more than muscular contraction. As mentioned in the prior paragraph, muscular contraction tends to cut off blood, oxygen, and ch’i to the surrounding tissues and produces lactic acid, a waste product. Muscular extension has these disadvantages to a much smaller extent and, thus, can be held for a much longer amount of time without fatigue setting in. Exertion of force through muscular contraction tends to bind the bones into a rigid system that produces awkward movement and power. Exertion of force through muscular extension, on the other hand, tends to make the body resilient and rooted.
Improved Bodily Alignment
It is very important to understand and manifest optimal alignment of bones in doing movement. When alignment is off, the cartilage of the joints undergoes excessive wear over a period of time because, instead of the pressure being concentrated on the center of the joint, it is more on the edge, where the cartilage is thin. Second, because incorrect alignment places a shear stress on the ligaments, which hold joints together, they can be injured or even torn by a sudden movement. Third, when alignment is off, exertion of force on something or somebody threatens to become damaging to one’s own body and, therefore limits the amount of force that can be exerted. A knowledgeable T’ai-Chi teacher understands principles of alignment, is mindful of students’ incorrect alignment, and makes teaching correct alignment a priority. Read about alignment of knees, ankles, and feet and how to overcome fallen arches.
Awareness of Self, Others, and Surroundings
Because doing T’ai-Chi movement requires constant release of unnecessary tension, practitioners become acutely aware of their own bodily tensions. The practice of push-hands, a two-person exercise, heightens this awareness and extends it to other's tensions and intentions. A similar statement can be made about a heightened awareness of spatial relationships. Thus, experienced practitioners tend to possess an increased awareness of people and objects around them and are more likely than those untrained in T’ai Chi to become aware of a dangerous situation early on and move to safety.
T’ai-Chi practice teaches using eyes in a more relaxed manner and cultivates use of peripheral vision, which is a safety plus when driving and walking. Read about vision improvement.
Whereas doing just the empty-hand T’ai-Chi form at normal speed is not aerobic, it has many of the benefits of aerobic exercise, plus, it provides many benefits not found in most aerobic exercise. (Note that push-hands, a two-person T’ai-Chi exercise, and T’ai-Chi weapons forms* are aerobic.) There are two ways of opening, cleansing, and toning the blood vessels and oxygenating the tissues of the body. One way is to do exercise that causes the heart rate and breathing to increase. Another way is to do slow, natural movement that frees the body from blockages to the flow of blood, which allows the transfer of oxygen and nutrients to the cells and allows them to release their waste products. That said, doing running, swimming, bicycling, or fast walking is totally compatible with T’ai Chi.
*Weapons forms are learned and practiced, not for self-defense but for learning to move an inanimate object as though it were a living part of one’s body.
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