There’s something inspirational about watching elderly Chinese people in parks doing Tai Chi en masse. Their agility and gracefulness, their focus and serenity are in stark contrast to their Western counterparts who mainly sit on benches grumpily staring at pigeons or who hobble around trying not to break a hip while dog-walking. When you’re faced with those two options, taking up Tai Chi – whatever your age – seems like a good idea.
But it’s not only the benefits of physical health that Tai Chi promotes – including lowering inflammation, blood pressure and glucose levels, reducing joint pain and even helping to lesser the severity of symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and dementia - it has also been proved that this ancient Chinese non-combative martial art can also help those who suffer from anxiety and depression.
One of the ways Tai Chi does this is by helping to focus the mind on slow, steady movements coupled with breathing exercises that calm the mind and reduce tension. Each movement has meaning and they come with poetic names such as ‘parting the wild horse’s mane’ or ‘wild crane spreads its wings’.
Being an advocate of mindfulness, I recently took some Tai Chi classes to see how this type of movement could be incorporated into my mindfulness practice. One of the first benefits I picked up was a new style of breathing exercise called Xi Xi Hu, which consisted of breathing in half way, and then taking in another deep breath before pausing and then breathing out very slowly. (It helps to imagine filling up your lungs half way up your chest and then filling them up right up to your shoulders, or to imagine blowing up a balloon a little bit and then blowing it up some more before letting all the air out.) What I found incredible with this breathing exercise was how much more air I could get into my lungs than I first thought and how much more relaxed I was after completing only a few rounds. Mindfulness practice always includes coming back to the breath whenever we get stressed or find our minds playing out unhelpful scenarios, so using the Xi Xi Hu technique was a great tool to add to my mindfulness repertoire.
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The practice itself was also so slow and measured that I found myself completely focused on trying to execute the movements and forgot about any of my worries or my daily to-do list. I couldn’t rush the movements but had to be patient while the teacher showed us each move again and again until we understood the reasoning behind it. I soon found I was totally present in the moment, the chatter in my brain had disappeared and instead I felt a pleasing sense of blankness. It was like I was listening to every part of my body, following my hand movements with my eyes, feeling my feet connected with the ground, being aware of every ache and pain but not fighting against it, just going with it. There were moments when it felt like it was the very embodiment of mindfulness – a meditation in motion.
What I also enjoyed was that instead of going to a gym or yoga class, there was no judgement about how you looked or how well you were doing the movements. I didn’t feel like I needed to come in the latest sports gear or push myself into doing the perfect position. Nearly everyone in the class was either middle-aged or elderly which quite naturally stopped any perfectionist or competitive tendencies and instead made the class light-hearted - we laughed a lot about how our arthritic knees couldn’t hold certain positions or our bad backs meant our bums were sticking out at weird angles. This was a great example of mindfulness in itself – non-judgement of yourself or others, and the wish to just do the very best you can without craving to reach the pinnacle of perfection.
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As an exercise form for people of all ages and abilities, sizes and shapes, Tai Chi affords greater aerobic capacity and muscle strength, more energy and stamina and enhanced flexibility, balance and agility. And in terms of mindfulness and the boost it brings to a person’s mood, Tai Chi can bring huge benefits for anyone struggling with their mental health.
The supposed founder of Tai Chi, a 12th-century Taoist monk called Zhang Sanfeng, was quoted as saying: "In every movement, every part of the body must be light and agile and strung together. The postures should be without breaks. Motion should be rooted in the feet, released through the legs, directed by the waist and expressed by the fingers.” It describes the practice perfectly – poetry in motion.
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