Tai Chi: Holistic Exercise for Interesting Times

by Rebecca Pope • March 10, 2020

According to legend, the Chinese were the first to recognize that living in “interesting times” could be a curse. Happily, Chinese health traditions provide us with practices and pathways to survive and thrive in “interesting times” by helping us to cultivate a resilient body, mind, and spirit.

The tradition of Chinese health advice, passed from generation to generation for thousands of years as part of the cultural heritage, is called Yangsheng, or “nourishing life.” Another way to talk about “nourishing life” is “taking care of your qi.” There are many aspects of the Yangsheng tradition and scholars have isolated its many roots, including, Taoism, Buddhism, Chinese medicine, Confucianism and the lessons gleaned from nature by an ancient people(s) who studied nature’s ways and tried to emulate them. Interestingly, the major tenets of the nourishing life tradition anticipate and are confirmed by Western research: cultivate a calm mind, eat a balanced diet (the traditional Chinese diet is a whole foods plant-based diet), get enough sleep, and balance movement and rest.

You can easily see how tai chi practice links to a number of these guidelines for a long and healthy life, for surviving and thriving. Slowing the body slows the mind. As moving meditation, tai chi quiets the mental chatter. Some practitioners report not just enhanced emotional equilibrium but also better sleep. And, of course, it is a movement practice. The Chinese, with their qi exercises like tai chi and qigong, knew long before the West that everything—body, mind, and spirit—works better when we move.

Tai chi is simultaneously movement and rest. Contemporary life is exhausting. Western culture tends to valorize only yang—activity, heat, stimulation. We rarely cultivate yin—stillness, quiet, rest. As a result, sometimes the only yin we know is a pathological yin—illness, depression. How often do we feel that the news (much of it unwelcome) just comes too fast, that we need to take, as we say, a “breather”? We tend to think of rest as a state of collapse: after a stressful day many of us fall into the couch and pick up the remote. Perhaps we stop at the fridge first to find something cold (ice cream? a beer?) in an unconscious attempt to tamp down the internal heat generated by the stress.

Sometimes we call this rest “unwinding.” Tai chi, with all its spiraling movements, a sort of winding and unwinding, is a different sort of rest, not just because it calms the mind but because the abdominal breathing we engage in while doing the practice helps to shut off the cascade of stress hormones that keeps us in a state of hyper-alertness. Only when the stress hormones take a rest can we rest in the positive sense of creating a physical and mental state that nourishes us (and our qi) and promotes healing. Slowing and relaxing the body helps to calm and quiet the mind. In tai chi, yin abides in yang. To move is to rest. Qi exercise is the ultimate “breather.”

A good and thoughtful tai chi practice also helps us to learn lessons in living from the movements. What do we embody when we do the form and how do we take those lessons into the rest of our lives, especially when times are hard or challenging? One of my qigong teachers used to say, “you aren’t really doing qigong until you are doing it all the time.” I think we can say the same of tai chi. Be rooted like a mountain. We practice being physically rooted in the earth so that we can stay calm, centered, grounded when life, as it inevitably does, throws us curve balls. Move slowly and breathe deeply. How often when we are anxious (anxiety puts us into a state of shallow and quick breathing) do we make hasty decisions we later regret?

Flow like water. The movements make us more physically flexible and should as well train us to be more flexible and less rigid of mind. Tai chi has been called “embodied Taoism,” and section 76 of the Tao Te Ching reminds us that healthy living things are soft and pliable while the dead are dry and brittle. Many of us tend to react to change, especially unwanted change, with rigidity. We dig our heels in, which keeps us from seeing new, more creative, productive, and flexible ways of aligning with changed circumstances. To be rooted yet also flexible is almost an oxymoron for those of us who grew up with a Western world view. The Chinese meditation practice of Standing like a Tree offers another model of this rooted flexibility. Standing like a healthy tree we are rooted and flexible enough to withstand the winds of change without toppling over.

And speaking of toppling over, when we learn the one-legged stances in tai chi it becomes clear that we can’t keep our balance if we aren’t rooted. Call to mind everything that keeps you grounded and centered in addition to your practice—friends or family, perhaps, a belief system, the books on your nightstand, or time alone in nature–and consider how you might strengthen those roots as well.

Finally, become aware of the form in its entirety. For example, in Yang style the rounded and circling movements of the arms and the back-stepping of the feet in Repulse the Monkey remind us that there are other ways of being in the world beyond the linear, hard-edged, always-forward-motion and no-looking-back way we operate in the West. The soft overcomes the hard—how can we be flexible and soft and adaptable by, like water, flowing around obstacles rather than just hammering away at them to no avail? And what about the Western notion of “progress” as a never-ending linear forward march? The form teaches us the benefit of taking a step back before moving forward again, of getting that wider picture, especially when we are anxious or stressed. “Progress” in tai chi, whether we are looking at the structure of the form or thinking about the experience of learning a form, is not exclusively linear. From here, we can see that sometimes it pays to rethink what progress means for ourselves and for the world, where so much “progress” has made us forget the lessons of nature and brought the planet ever-nearer to extinction.

Being rooted yet flexible, learning how to balance amid the currents of change, cultivating slowness and stillness in our world of mind-numbing activity and over-stimulation, practicing positive rest—we take the form into the rest of our lives.
From here, it’s tempting to call tai chi “holistic exercise” that trains us body, mind, and spirit for “interesting times.”

Rebecca Pope, PhD, MMQ (Master of Medical Qigong), Davis, California


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