The eight active ingredients of Tai Chi
Excerpted from an article by Peter M. Wayne, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Director of Research, Osher Center for Integrative Medicine
1. Awareness. This ingredient is essential in order to fully develop all the others. It begins as self-awareness. Paying attention to your breathing and the sensations in your body as you practice the slow, graceful movements of tai chi helps you become more focused. It counteracts what Asian meditative traditions call “monkey mind,” the distracted thinking that focuses on external, past, or future events and commonly dwells on negative thoughts and what-ifs. This mental chatter often intrudes when you’re trying to do seated meditation. But in tai chi, as you concentrate on shifting your weight, moving your hands and arms, or turning your body, your mind is less likely to wander to tonight’s dinner or an argument with your partner, and you are more likely to be present in the moment. Cultivating this skill during the practice of tai chi helps you to be more focused throughout your day, even when you’re not doing tai chi. And there are other advantages as well. A heightened body awareness may contribute to better balance. And having a clearer mind may help you to more calmly navigate challenges such as a high-pressure work deadline or an emotional teenager.
2. Intention. Through visualization, imagery, and other cognitive tools used in tai chi, you alter your intentions, beliefs, and expectations. This has real-world effects. For example, instructions in tai chi such as “stand rooted like a tree” can simultaneously affect your muscle tension, postural alignment, and mental state, resulting in enhanced balance. Research on stroke patients has demonstrated that motor imagery — for instance, visualizing movements in paralyzed arms without actually moving — can help some people recover motor function. Similar mental training has also been used in athletes and musicians to improve their performance. This power of imagination and belief is behind the placebo effect as well. All of these examples are evidence that the power of suggestion can have a physical impact — or, as tai chi masters say, “Imagination becomes reality.” In an exercise like “Washing yourself with healing energy from nature,” when you picture yourself bathing every cell in your body with healing energy, it just may help you to feel better and be healthier.
3. Structural integration. Tai chi looks at the body as an interconnected system, not as a collection of individual parts. As a result, when practicing tai chi, you won’t do one exercise for your biceps and another for your glutes. Instead, tai chi integrates the upper body with the lower body, the right side with the left side, and the extremities with the core. Alignment and posture are part of this structural integration, and tai chi trains you to find alignments that are safe and unstrained, allowing you to perform graceful movements. You move more efficiently — not just during your tai chi practice, but throughout your day. The result is less stress and load on your joints and better balance. Similarly, improved posture has benefits that extend well beyond your tai chi class. When you walk or sit with your shoulders rounded and your torso hunched over, it is hard to take deep breaths. But when you straighten your back, roll your shoulders back and down, and open your chest, you breathe more deeply and efficiently. Not only does this integration improve your ability to move without pain, but it also affects your mental health. In two different studies, people who sat or walked more upright during the experiments had a more positive outlook afterward than those who slouched while sitting or walking.
4. Active relaxation. When you hear the word relaxation, you may think of chilling out by the pool or flopping on the couch in front of the TV. In tai chi, relaxation is an active concept, not a passive one; it has to be, since you’re doing tai chi while standing. Muscles that are actively relaxed have a greater range of motion and can move more efficiently. What’s more, tai chi promotes “intelligent strength,” using all parts of the body efficiently and in a connected way so no part is overloaded. The circular, flowing motions of tai chi are also meditative, helping to shift your mind and body into a deeper level of relaxation (see “Meditation in motion”). Tai chi is a balance of moderate effort with active relaxation — like yin and yang.
Basic tai chi breathing
Natural, freer breathing is one of the eight active ingredients of tai chi. There are a variety of techniques to achieve this, but this report focuses on belly breathing. Also called natural, abdominal, diaphragmatic, or tantien breathing, this form of breathing is often used in clinical trials.
If you’ve ever watched a sleeping baby, you’ve observed belly breathing. As babies inhale, their bellies effortlessly expand like a balloon being inflated, with their chests expanding to a lesser degree. Then, as they exhale, their bellies relax along with their entire bodies. It is deep, slow, and rhythmic, and appears natural and effortless. In contrast, most adults take shallow, rapid breaths, using only their chests.
Belly breathing requires deeper breaths. The diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle that sits atop the stomach and liver, is the primary muscle of healthy breathing. When you inhale, the diaphragm moves downward, increasing the space in the chest cavity. This action reduces pressure on the lungs and creates a vacuum that draws air in all the way to the bottom of the lungs. When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and returns to its domed shape, compressing the lungs and squeezing air out.
Before you attempt belly breathing, simply observe your breath. Don’t change anything; just be aware of each inhalation and exhalation. Feel the sensations of breathing in your nose, throat, chest, and throughout your body. Pay attention to where your breath is going. Is it flowing freely? Are there places where it is getting stuck or areas where it doesn’t go? Does trying with a little less effort ease or enhance the flow of breath in and out?
When you are ready to try belly breathing, it’s best to sit or lie down and practice it on its own at first, without trying to combine it with tai chi exercises. Get into a comfortable position, relaxing your whole body. Now, imagine you have a balloon in your belly. As you inhale, it gently inflates, expanding your belly. As you exhale, it deflates, relaxing your belly. To encourage belly breathing, bring your hands in front of your abdomen and mimic the action: let your hands expand as you inhale and then contract as you exhale. Repeat this inhale-exhale cycle nine to 36 times. (In tai chi, multiples of three are regarded as “round” numbers.) As your breaths deepen, imagine the balloon expanding into the upper regions of your torso and all the way down to your toes. With each inhalation, imagine that you are taking in healing, nourishing energy and sending it throughout your body. Relax deeply with each exhalation. Remember not to force the volume of the breath — less can be more. You don’t have to follow any particular rhythm. Do what is comfortable for you, resting in between if needed or stopping if you get lightheaded.
Once you feel comfortable with belly breathing, give it a try as you perform the tai chi exercises in this report. Do the best you can. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You can also practice belly breathing anytime, anywhere for a tai chi break that will relax and balance your body and mind.
5. Strengthening and flexibility. There are myriad studies supporting the benefits of exercise, but many people also suffer injuries, especially when they try to push themselves too far, too fast. Tai chi provides a gradual approach to building strength, increasing flexibility, and even improving cardio fitness. It’s about moderation and minimizing the risk of injury. Instead of hoisting heavy weights, you’ll build strength through slow movements, slightly flexed stances, shifting your weight from leg to leg, and swinging and lifting your arms. Slow, continuous, relaxed movements that you repeat provide dynamic stretching to increase your range of motion and flexibility. And despite its deceptively mellow look, tai chi is a low- to moderate-intensity aerobic activity, depending upon your fitness level and how you practice it. (Deconditioned individuals will get more of a cardio workout than someone who exercises regularly.) In addition, moving more quickly from one position to the next, sinking deeper into postures, and doing tai chi for longer periods of time can increase intensity up to the level of a moderate walk, according to studies. Because tai chi appears to affect your cardiovascular system in more ways than just aerobic training, even healthy individuals may be able to improve their heart health (see “A stronger heart”).
6. Natural, freer breathing. You can survive days without eating, maybe even a few without drinking, but mere minutes without breathing. Tai chi corrects the slumped, rounded posture that you often resort to after too many hours at the computer, behind the steering wheel, or in front of the TV. As soon as you stand or sit taller and open up your posture, breathing becomes easier, and you’re able to take in more air (see “Basic tai chi breathing”). The deeper you breathe, the more oxygen your body takes in, improving performance. Your breath also has a direct physiological effect on your nervous system. Deep, slow, and rhythmic breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a more balanced, relaxed state. Your heart rate slows, and hormones that promote feelings of calm and social bonding increase. The opposite happens with fast, superficial patterns of breathing. Deep breathing also, in the parlance of Eastern philosophy, helps to “massage” your internal organs. Researchers in Japan placed pressure sensors into participants’ colons. The sensors, which behaved like little floating buoys, detected pressure waves that corresponded to all types of breaths, both normal and deep. Other research has shown that these breathing-induced pressure changes and rhythms can increase blood flow to organs and may help to alleviate musculoskeletal pain, including back pain. The effects are greater with deeper breaths.
7. Social support. Most people practice tai chi in a class setting, which affords them the opportunity to interact with the instructor and with others in the class, creating a community. This sense of belonging can be a strong motivator to stick with your practice. Plus, the social support you receive from this type of group has been shown in research to have beneficial effects on your health. People who have strong ties to others tend to be healthier and happier, and when they do become sick, they tend to recover more quickly. Even if you practice on your own, think of yourself as part of the larger community of tai chi practitioners.
8. Embodied spirituality. Tai chi, with its influence from Taoism, creates a framework for integrating body, mind, and spirit for a more holistic life. When you practice tai chi, you are doing more than just physical exercise. Your psychological well-being, your social interactions, and your larger beliefs about nature are all affected. You become more aware, more sensitive, more balanced. And the experiences you have while doing tai chi begin to spill into your everyday life. For example, after a tai chi session, you may eat more slowly and mindfully. You may drive less aggressively. You may respond to a stressful interaction with a screaming child or a rude salesperson more calmly. Tai chi’s philosophy can affect your behavior in a good way. You learn to “go with the flow,” a tenet of Taoism. This adaptability or resilience enables you to better manage stress and bounce back from adversity or trauma. It’s like an emotional form of self-defense.