By Jacqui Shumway and Joseph Brady
There is more to balance than not falling over, it may also keep us from falling apart. After the 2016 election and the information age sweeping us along faster and faster, stress levels are becoming greater and greater. Some stress can make you stronger biologically, but it can also lead to breakdowns in the system when we exceed our “stress limit.” Minor breakdowns often show up as “feeling” tired, depressed, out of shape … just plain stressed out. Instead of speeding up the pace, the antidote to that stress may be to slow down in everything, including our exercise programs. One method of slowing down is being referred to as both the “latest exercise craze to hit the western health market” and as “ an ancient Chinese art that is one of China’s national treasures” – T’ai Chi Chuan.
Meditation in Motion
As a culture, we worked very hard to develop our “fast-paced productive world” and we thrive on the challenges presented by a highly productive society. We do not, however, want to continue functioning for the rest of the world at the expense of our own health. We want it all and we can probably have it, too. Redirecting stress and having a little balance in our lives is the key to having it all. T’ai Chi Chuan, with its eastern roots, is unlocking doors in the Western world.
So what exactly is T’ai Chi, and specifically T’ai Chi Chuan? T’ai Chi Chuan can be summarized as a very effective moving meditation that combines the health benefits of physical activity and “stress redirection and balance” into one neat little exercise. Performed with slow rhythmic motions, T’ai Chi balances the frantic pace of modern life by giving us permission to slow down.
Exercise is one of the most effective de-stressors
A moderate aerobic exercise that gently strengthens the whole body without the pounding of traditional exercise regimens, T’ai Chi has been found equivalent to walking 6 klm/hr enhancing vigor and superior to reading in the reduction of stress.
T’ai Chi complements other workouts by stretching muscles that have been tightened, contracted, or stressed by cardiovascular or strength training. T’ai Chi also improves mental alertness and powers of concentration. These are the reasons why a number of world class athletes practice T’ai Chi as an adjunct to their regular sports-training regimen.
According to the China Sports Editorial board T’ai Chi Chuan is “physical exercises for the cultivation of the Mind.” People of all ages study T’ai Chi to exercise safely, gently and enjoyably while improving performance & ability in a wide range of activities. For those who can perform it well, T’ai Chi becomes a joyous artistic performance, where all separation between mind and body disappear. By teaching the mind to take better control of the body, we gain back a sense of control over our lives. We feel a sense of mastery over our fate … a deeply enjoyable experience.
From the Ancient Battlefield to Modern Times
T’ai Chi Chuan was developed over seven centuries ago as a response to extremely stressful times as waves of Mongol invasions swept across ancient China. Today the battles are being fought with well dressed barbarians in the business world … battles between work commitments and family commitments – conflicts between taking care of ourselves or waiting until we get sick. We sabotage our own happiness with these conflicts and meditation can be a very useful way to examine our own thoughts and gain insight into our own worst enemy — ourselves.
T’ai Chi began its rise to popularity in 1991 when it was featured in Bill Moyer’s PBS series, “Healing and the Mind.” This series emphasized benefits for healing through the mind-body connection. Western science is rapidly coming to the same conclusions. Psychological characteristics such as mood, depression and anger have been shown to be important mediators in health and immune system response. Dr. Kenneth Pelltier with the Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention writes in the American Journal of Health Promotion: ”there is an increasingly compelling body of evidence indicating that mind/body interactions are at the root of both health and disease.” Zhang San-feng, the founder of T’ai Chi, said “attentively settle the mind and you will gain a little peace and relaxation. When people come to you with troubles, you ought to respond, then let the thing pass…” Scientifically, meditation is a very simple and natural process of quieting the mind by focusing on breathing, movement or rhythmic action. This allows the mind to take a brief vacation from everyday problems and normal thinking patterns that have been shown to have a devastating effect on the quality of life.
Stress Can Accelerate Aging
If you “feel” like the stress in your life is aging you faster, it is. Stress can
accelerate the rate of aging itself. Studies have shown that when stress-related hormones are injected into young healthy rats, the hormones quickly turn the rats’ hair gray, wrinkle their skin and age their muscles and bones. When you stress an animal too much, it ages quickly and dies. If you don’t stress an animal at all, it atrophies and dies. Now, if you stress an animal a little bit and then allow it to relax, it grows stronger and lives longer.
Stress even effects us at a genetic level. In Tom Johnson’s laboratory at the University of Colorado, Boulder, they are studying genes that have been implicated in contributing to aging, genes that appear to be stress response genes. As the name implies, these are genes that help us respond to stress well. One of our country’s top biologists, George Baker, uses stress response in his definition of aging. He defines aging as ”the decline over time in the fitness of a person to withstand the stresses of day-to-day living.”
T’ai Chi seems to favorably enhance stress response in the aging process. In one study, scientists were able to show a fifty percent reduction in normal age-related functional decline by subjects practicing the exercise of T’ai Chi as compared to sedentary control subjects. In this study, scientists measured subjects’ VO2 max, a test of aerobic fitness and a biomarker of aging. They showed that T’ai Chi not only improved the aerobic fitness of subjects but had also slowed the rate of aging in the heart, lungs, circulatory system and musculature of older adults who practiced it. Although traditional forms of vigorous exercise have shown that people reach higher levels of fitness, they also age at a faster rate. The T’ai Chi seems to slow the rate of aging decline beyond even that of normal exercise.
Stress Response and Depression
From gene expression to stress response, our mind, endocrine glands and immune system connect up through chemical messenger molecules sensitive to our thoughts, emotions and reactions, known as neuropeptides. Neurotransmitters that can greatly effect the enjoyment of life are norepinephrine and serotonin. Norepinephrine is known as the “happiness and contentedness hormone.” Serotonin, among other functions, determines the quality of our sleep. The conditions that destroy the quality of life for many people often can be traced to a decline in these chemical messengers. These conditions include depression, loneliness, boredom and sleep disorders. In a very real way, the quality of our lives depends in large part on the quality of the way we live our lives on a daily basis.
So, what can we do to combat these effects naturally? Physical activity increases arousal and this in turn increases serotonin and norepinephrine as well as endorphines – the body’s natural pain killers. These changes lead to a sort of physiological toughening known as “mastery. ” After 30 years of experience at the Fort Logan Mental Health Center, recently retired Chief of the Adolescent Unit and former Chief of the Geriatric Unit, George Kerin has found that certain behavioral activities such as daily exercise, meditation, reading, memorizing or learning new things such as T’ai Chi can be extremely useful in combating common depressions by stimulating production of these neurotransmitter chemicals naturally in the body. Anti-depressant drugs try to replace this process artificially, but as with any drug, there are often side effects.
Take a Daily Break From Stress
So …take a T’ai Chi Stress Break today. Learn to handle the physical and emotional effects of the stress that comes with the pressures of day to day responsibilities. Scientific studies have found that those who practice T’ai Chi have more energy, improved sense of wellbeing and self esteem, and less depression and anxiety. Slow down the pace of your life with T’ai Chi Chuan. “Even the simplest physical act becomes enjoyable when it is transformed so as to produce flow” say’s Mihaly Cziksent, former chair of the University of Chicago Dept. of Psychology.
T’ai Chi is a fun way to relax, be physically active, and make some friends. Take a class and learn specific exercises for identifying the sources of daily stress and dealing with time pressures. Take better control of the health harming effects of stress. While maximizing energy and minimizing injuries you can learn to accomplish more work with less effort and have more of yourself for your family and friends.
Seek out a Qualified Teacher and Get Moving
An art steeped in a long history and a sense of mystery most Americans find it difficult to accept T’ai Chi and traditional Chinese health claims on faith alone. To get the most benefit from any exercise meditation program, seek out qualified, trained professionals who can ensure that you get the benefits for both health and well-being. T’ai Chi takes limited space and equipment. Instructors should teach meditation and concentration, while cultivating physical fitness in a relaxed enjoyable atmosphere.
Mastering T’ai Chi means mastering the stresses in our lives. As Plato said, “He who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of [living].”