The Benefits of Practicing Tai Chi Chuan

by Cheng Tin-Hung and Dan Docherty

Benefits of learning Tai chi Chuan - Tai Chi breathing - Tranquility of motion - Method of practice

The Benefits of Learning Tai Chi Chuan

by Cheng Tin-Hung and Dan Docherty

Many city dwellers, owing to the pressures of work, traffic congestion and other factors do not take proper exercise. As a result, they become victims of mental strain, nervous tension and other maladies which detract from their efficiency in their daily work.

There are many sports and pastimes which cater to the desires of those amongst us who wish to acquire a fit and healthy body. However, it is difficult to find a system of exercise suitable for persons of all ages, which requires little or no special equipment, and which can be practiced in a relatively small area either indoors or outdoors.

Tai Chi Chuan is such a system of exercise. Those who practice it regularly will develop a healthy body and an alert mind. The improvement in their health will better enable them to concentrate on their routine tasks and to make effective decisions, all of which leads in turn to a greater success in their chosen career.

The Tai Chi Chuan Hand Form, with its graceful movements and alert actions, resembles a classic dance. Through the execution of complex manoeuvres in conjunction with deep regulated breathing and the contraction and expansion of the diaphragm, the Hand Form offers a balanced drill to the body's muscles and joints.

Over a period of time, the central nervous system will be stimulated by the tranquil state of mind and dedicated concentration on the movements which result from the performance of the Hand Form. This serves to increase the well-being of all the organs of the body as their efficient functioning depends very largely on a sound central nervous system.

We can look upon the practice of Tai Chi Chuan in two ways. First it is a method of physical exercise. Secondly, it acts as a catalyst in that when performed by our body it causes certain beneficial reactions to take place. As our muscles move they exert pressure on our veins, forcing our blood flow towards the heart, improving our circulation. Meanwhile, the deep breathing necessary for the performance of the Hand Form causes the diaphragm to expand outwards and downwards and contract inwards and upwards, and this movement of the diaphragm gently `massages' the liver and the intestines.

Those who suffer from indigestion will benefit from practicing Tai Chi Chuan, as the exercise which the stomach muscles receive will improve the digestion, leading to an increased appetite and the prevention of constipation. Middle-aged and elderly people will find this of particular comfort.

Since the breathing in Tai Chi Chuan is so deep that there is a greater intake of air into the lungs than usual, a greater amount of oxygen is available for consumption and this increases blood circulation. In so doing it also expands the blood vessels which serve the heart and intestines. Therefore Tai Chi Chuan helps prevent thrombosis and many other ailments of the heart and intestines.

The natural process of human life requires that we take in oxygen and all sorts of nutrients. After various transformations, these are conveyed to different parts of the body, through the medium of the bloodstream. Once they have undergone certain physical and chemical processes, part of the materials taken in are converted to waste products and then excreted. This process is called `substitution' and without it the spark of life would be extinguished. If substitution is going on in an inefficient manner, arteriosclerosis and other complaints may result, as is often the case with the elderly. As Tai Chi Chuan strengthens the central nervous system, improves blood circulation, stimulates the operation of the heart and intestines and promotes better digestion, it also safeguards the process of substitution and helps prevent sickness.

The graceful movements of Tai Chi Chuan flow like the running water of streams and rivers, while the tranquility of mind is that aimed for in Taoism. It is this that can lead to changes in our disposition, making us more even-tempered and slow to anger. We can go a stage further. The philosophy of our art is to concentrate on the use of the brain rather than brawn, to let thought guide our actions, and this principle we should try to apply to our daily lives.

`Mens sana in corpore sano' (a healthy mind in a healthy body) is what Tai Chi Chuan can give us, but only if we invest the necessary time and effort.


The Breathing Method of Tai Chi Chuan

by Cheng Tin-Hung and Dan Docherty

As we have seen the origins of Tai Chi Chuan lie in Taoism. The Taoists themselves used a special method of breathing modelled on the respiratory system of the tortoise, whose hard shell limits the outward expansion of its lungs. Its lungs are therefore forced to expand by extending the length of the body rather than outwards, thus making its breathing deep and harmonious. The tortoise may move slowly, but it lives a long time. This is why the Taoists and later the founders of Tai Chi Chuan adopted and adapted this breathing method.

Our heart and lungs work incessantly to keep our body alive and in good health. To maintain this state of affairs we have a duty to protect them from too much stress and strain when we engage in exercise. Most forms of exercise require lung expansion when we inhale. This expansion forces our muscles and ribs outwards thus increasing the chest's capacity to take in air. However, this puts a lot of pressure on our lungs and we can easily tire out. In the same way, a car which is constantly travelling uphill will sooner or later develop engine trouble.

In practicing Tai Chi Chuan we do not use this common method of breathing which is particularly unsuitable for the sick and those who have passed their prime. We concentrate instead on making our movements relaxed and harmonious and our postures natural so our breathing will also be natural and not forced.

Constant practice of Tai Chi Chuan over a period of time will make our breathing slow and deep, while our internal organs will work in a gentle and harmonious fashion. When we inhale, our diaphragm will expand not only outwards, but also downwards in the direction of the abdomen, giving our lungs more space to expand downwards also. When we exhale, our lungs contract causing the diaphragm to contract also, both inwards and upwards. The rising and falling motions of the diaphragm help our lungs to function properly. At the same time the rhythmic nature of the diaphragm's movements act to massage our stomach and intestines, gently increasing the circulation of blood and transportation of nutrition. This whole process of respiration in Tai Chi Chuan is called, `The downward extension of breath to the Tan Tin' (a point 1" below the navel).

This is not to say that our diaphragm can or does expand downwards to the Tan Tin, but only that the effect of the downward movement of the diaphragm is to cause the other organs of our body to expand downwards or to contract in proportion to the movements of the diaphragm. This effect is most keenly felt at the Tan Tin. What has happened is that the constant practice of Tai Chi Chuan relaxes the muscles of the diaphragm enabling it to expand downwards instead of merely outwards. There is a common misconception that the air we breath is brought down to the Tan Tin. This is an illogical and unscientific notion.

In breathing we should at all times both inhale and exhale through the nose. Our mouth should be kept shut and our tongue should rest gently against the roof of the mouth so that we can salivate and avoid a dry throat during practicing Tai Chi Chuan and reaping the benefits of doing so.


Tranquillity of Motion

by Cheng Tin-Hung and Dan Docherty

One of the main reasons for practicing the Tai Chi Hand form slowly, avoiding the application of brute force, is that we can harmonise our thoughts and actions by moving in a smooth and relaxed manner.

The Taoists said `seek tranquility in motion'. This means that the slowness of our physical movements when practicing Tai Chi Chuan results in peace of mind which enables us to concentrate on performing the exercise to the exclusion of outside distractions. Soft slow practice reduces tension and increases concentration. Thus, over a period of time our physical and mental health will improve.

If we are suddenly attacked, we must be able to react swiftly to prevent our opponent from completing his assault. This ability to react swiftly depends upon our body remaining relaxed in such a situation. By constant, soft, slow practice we can make our muscles and tendons relaxed. This will allow our joints to rotate smoothly, making us swift and agile in defence and counter-attack.

Lao Tzu said `The unbending breaks, the yielding survives'. Our softness allows us to yield before even the strongest attack. But just as the bamboo which has bent before the wind swings back when the wind has ceased, so too our defence must change to attack at the right moment.

There is no set length of time for practicing the Hand Form from the beginning to end. The young tend to exercise a little faster than the old, but fifteen minutes is about right.


The Method of Practice

by Cheng Tin-Hung and Dan Docherty

In order to derive maximum benefit from the practice of Tai Chi Chuan, we must first learn the correct method of practicing. The execution of each movement requires patient concentration.

Before beginning we must first relax and think of nothing else. Our movements should be slow and we should breath naturally. We must avoid tension. If we can do this our every action will become smooth and easy, our waist will turn freely and we will feel relaxed and comfortable.

Tai Chi Chuan is an exercise which aims at producing harmony of body and mind. To achieve this and to avoid the application of brute force, we must let our thoughts guide our actions. Constant practice can make this a habit with us. It is not enough to concentrate on the correct slow execution of individual movements such as raising and lowering the hands.

Both our concentration and our movements must continue in harmony throughout the form. This will make our breathing deeper and help strengthen our body.


General Principals

At first it is difficult for a beginner to judge whether the styles and individual movements he performs are correct or not. In some cases beginners will find styles which are particularly difficult for them to master. However, there are some general principles to be understood and adopted which will help produce correct styles and movements:-

  • Throughout the movements our head should remain in line with our spinal column and not move up and down If we can do this our neck muscles will become relaxed;
  • We should not hunch our shoulders or fully straighten our arms when we extend them. When we retract our arms, the elbows should be kept close to the body and not allowed to jut out at all angles. We must keep our arms and shoulders relaxed in order to move smoothly. If we fail to do so our movements will be stiff and awkward;
  • We must relax our whole body and avoid stiffening the chest. If we can do this our breathing will become deep and natural and our movements alert;
  • If our waist is stiff and tense we will find it difficult to move in any direction and our co-ordination will be affected as we will be unable to transmit power from the waist to the actions of our arms and hands. If the waist is stiff, our bottom will jut out, making our balance unstable and preventing our movements from being graceful. Relaxation of the waist is essential;
  • With certain exceptions, most postures in the Hand Form require us to rest most of our weight on one leg, making it easy to move the other leg to change posture, and to shift the weight from one leg to the other as we practice. The photographs of the form should be studied carefully so that we get this balance right and are able to move freely

Advice for the Future:

  • Try to practice daily to derive maximum benefit from the art;
  • Watch the instructor when he is teaching others and watch others perform so that by comparing techniques, good points can be adopted and bad ones corrected;
  • Think about and analyse the styles after learning them properly;
  • Ask the instructor questions about the styles to clear up any doubts or ambiguities.