T'ai Chi cultivates health benefits beyond those studied by Western medicine. T'ai Chi conditions the sleeves between muscles and nerves (the films that separate and support the organs) known as the fascia. The acupuncture meridians (energy pathways) of Chinese medicine run through the fascia. By conditioning these boundary layers between tissues, T'ai Chi reduces chemical cross-linking, or cellular rust. Move it or lose it, the Taoists say. The turning of the trunk flexes the spine, producing some of the same benefits as twists in yoga (improved spinal flexibility, release of tension on the perispinal muscles, alleviating imbalances that can lead to back pain while improving blood flow to the discs). And similar to yoga, T'ai Chi conditions the psoas, that deep muscle of balance that underlies the lower abdominal organs and mediates the relationship of the spine to the pelvis and legs. Proper T'ai Chi practice places certain demands on the body: The sinking of the weight, over time, tells the legs to add muscle and bone mass, while the turning of the body, in conjunction with deep abdominal breathing, "wrings out" the organs, flushing blood out as they're compressed and allowing it to flow back in when the movement compresses another part of the torso. This flexing and unflexing reduces pockets of stagnation in the various organ systems.
Physical strength peaks in the mid-20s, declines modestly to age 50, and steeply thereafter. Studies show a loss of one-third of lower extremity strength by age 70. In advanced age, few people are able to stand on one leg for more than a few seconds. Premature decline need not be the case. T'ai Chi exercises all the joints and major muscle groups in a slow, rhythmic, mindful way, priming the body for whatever demands the day may make. Leg strength increases with practice, which pays off with every step you take, every time you stand in line, every time you climb a flight of stairs. Your joints stay loose and flexible, so everyday chores around the house and garden don't take as much out of you. When you practice T'ai Chi in the morning, it's easier to move for the rest of the day and concentrate on what you have to do. You waste less energy and attention on body static, so you have the stamina to ride out crazy days and long hours at work and still have something left for your family, your mate, your art. T'ai Chi is for anyone who wants to move with greater strength, grace, and ease as they get older.
In the United States, studies have shown that even people in their 70s and 80s can learn a simplified series of T'ai Chi forms, and benefit tremendously. Study subjects show a marked decrease in injurious falls, reduction in blood pressure, and improved measures of balance and confidence.
Stress is competing demands, overabundant choices, too much to do in too little time. Stress is modern living, the American way. Chronic stress is bad because it makes the body focus on short-term emergencies, at the expense of long-term regeneration. Chronic stress undermines the body's ability to fix itself.
The stress response is designed to get you out of immediate danger: Your body mobilizes energy and delivers it where it's needed most. Glucose and amino acids are released from storage in your fat cells, your liver, and your muscles. Heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate all go up. Blood supply is shunted from the organs (except for the heart and lungs) to the skeletal muscles. Pain is suppressed, and the mind achieves a peculiar clarity. Digestion shuts down, regenerative processes are put on hold, reproductive urges and capabilities dwindle, and, for some as yet unexplained reason, the body starts actively dismantling the immune system.
That the stress response itself can become harmful makes a certain amount of sense when you examine the things that occur in reaction to stress. They are the sorts of costly things your body has to do to respond effectively in an emergency. If you experience every day as an emergency, you will pay the price.
If you constantly mobilize energy at the cost of energy storage, you will never store any surplus energy. You will fatigue more rapidly, and your risk of developing a form of diabetes will increase. The consequences of chronically overactivating your cardiovascular system are similarly damaging: If your blood pressure rises to 180/140 when you are sprinting away from a lion, you are being adaptive, but if it is 180/140 every time you see the mess in your teenager's bedroom, you could be heading for cardiovascular disease.
This is the bodily cost of chronic stress; life as we know it. We make it hard for our bodies to fix themselves. Anything we can do to dissipate stress is time and energy well spent. T'ai Chi is a great way to reduce stress. The mental focus of the mind leading the movement; thinking only of the movement; the slow, flowing shifts of balance; the regular, deep breathing; the harmonious turning of the limbs; and the circular openings and closings of the T'ai Chi form make it one of the best stress reducers available.
Unlike so many other physical exercises practiced today, T'ai Chi does not harm the body. Its slow, gentle movements are designed to soothe rather than stress, and place no undue strain upon the muscles, joints, or connective tissues. Even walking can be a higher impact exercise than T'ai Chi. This isn't to say that the other forms of exercise are wrong—they just may be wrong for you.
In the many forms of T'ai Chi practice are found some that can equal the toughest aerobic workouts in terms of perspiration and muscle stretching. More commonly found in the West are the softer forms, performed slowly and with upright posture. In between, you can probably find a style of T'ai Chi that is perfect for you and your needs.
My students often remark how energized they feel after a class, and in one way this is due to the simple fact that they are moving. So much of our society today is devoted to the sofa and easy chair—computers and television are probably the two biggest culprits here. So, T'ai Chi offers a safe way to get moving again, and to regain that mobility and healthy glow.
The effects of T'ai Chi upon the body's coordination are well known, and will benefit both the seasoned athlete and the "armchair warrior." Whether you are golfing in Florida or lugging the groceries in from the car in Pennsylvania, T'ai Chi will help energize you and allow you to move in the most efficient, safest, and ergonomically correct fashion.
Another physical benefit of T'ai Chi is that of massaging the feet. Ever had a foot massage? Felt good, right? T'ai Chi massages the bottom of the feet, stimulating the acupuncture points grouped there, and leading to general circulatory and balance improvement. According the Traditional Chinese Medicine theory, the bottom of the feet contain energy pathways, or meridians, that lead to all of the body's internal organs. So, in a sense, you are massaging your organs by gently moving back and forth on your feet.
The theory of Chinese medicine will be examined in more detail in Chapter 12. Another physical benefit accrued from T'ai Chi practice is that of learning to "listen" to the body. By this, I don't mean listening for the various bodily sounds, those snaps, crackles, and pops that we all have, but to learn how to feel and interpret the various sensations produced from T'ai Chi movements and equate them with your overall level of health. Here's an example from one of my students. Jane (all names have been changed), 57, came to my class one rainy day in May and told me that she was a mess. "I can't get through my day at work because of the pain I have. I've heard T'ai Chi can help. Can it?"
Upon further questioning, I discovered that Jane had been living with her pain for more than 12 years. The most upsetting thing to her was the sudden onset of the pain, with no warning. She felt she could deal with it, if she had time to prepare herself mentally. The cause of her pain, arthritis and fibromyalgia, was not important at this point—her mechanism for recognizing and dealing with is was.
In the course of T'ai Chi instruction over the next three months, Jane learned many techniques for recognizing the onset of the pains, often many hours in advance of the actual event. Her T'ai Chi practice taught her to tune in to her body, to gain a new self-diagnostic tool to use in her fight against these crippling diseases. She was able to adjust her posture and her breathing, make use of meditation exercises, and set herself both physically and mentally for the coming battle. As a result, Jane was able to more easily get through her day.
When you reach a certain age, the idea of going down to the gym for a few hours begins to pale somewhat. The young crowd and the loud music contribute to a sense of unease and of not belonging. One of the most glaringly obvious problems with our Western exercise system is that health is equated with a "perfect" body. Ladies, how many times have you looked at the cover of Cosmo or Vogue and sighed with envy? Did you, at that time and place in your life, really want to look like that? Did you think that was the perfect body? Guys, same thing for us, but of course, different role models—Rambo, Arnold, and the like.
Like Popeye said, "I am what I am." Our society's obsession with thin and beautiful is a disease more insidious than arthritis. What constitutes beautiful? How thin is thin enough? The problem here is the overemphasis on the external, or yang, aspect of you. Physical beauty fades in time; the skin wrinkles; hair turns gray or falls out. So what? You're still you. T'ai Chi places great importance on the concept of balance, of finding peace in both the body and mind. How can the mind ever be happy if it is not happy with the body? T'ai Chi teaches us to accept what, and who, we are.
Losing Weight With T'ai Chi
We all want to lose weight, for whatever reason. Keeping the ideas of the previous paragraph in mind, make sure you want to lose the weight for the right reasons. Lose it for you, not for someone else. Lose it because you feel better at your target weight. Lose it because you'll be healthier. Lose it because you love yourself. But don't lose it because of what others think or say or do.
T'ai Chi helps you to lose weight in an efficient, healthy manner. It works from the inside out, bringing your peace of mind and positive self-image to bear on the weight issue. Again, this is the flaw in so many of the fad diets—they address the calories, but not the whole person. The positive attitude gained from T'ai Chi practice enables you to intelligently choose a weight-loss program and stick with it for your reasons. The more T'ai Chi you do, the more positive your self-image becomes, the more you want to lose the weight and look and feel better. Another aspect of T'ai Chi practice comes into play at this point. The calming effect of the movements leads to an overall calmer attitude toward life. This will serve to eliminate the nervous snacking and habitual binging that plague so many people in our society. When you are healthy and happy, you don't feel the need to overeat, or on the other hand, to deny yourself any type of food. You'll rely upon your new body/ mind connection instead of food.
Your posture is perhaps one of the most important considerations in your overall health, yet it is rarely mentioned or prescribed by your doctor. Correct posture not only leads to a healthier outward appearance, but to more efficient use of oxygen by the lungs and greater blood circulation. The bones and muscles in the body will work in tandem rather than opposition, and the joints and connective tissues will be lubricated and stretched comfortably.
T'ai Chi can address postural problems stemming from stroke, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and many other afflictions.
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