– Ian Sinclair
We know what it does…
….but how does it work?
There has been a lot of medical research in recent years showing the many ways in which tai chi can benefit one’s mental and physical health. As well, tai chi teachers and students have known for centuries that tai chi is an excellent method of improving one’s fitness level at any age. However, there has always been an important element missing from all of this research. That is because western medical researchers usually seem to be more interested in determining what works than they are in how the thing works.
This actually makes sense in many ways. It can be very difficult to explain the subtle workings of things as complex as the human mind and body. It can be even more difficult to understand, in an objective way, something that is usually understood only subjectively in the way in which tai chi is usually understood.
When we learn tai chi, we are taught to look for certain subjective experiences such as the “flow of qi” or the relationship with the mind and the centre of the earth. We are told to “sink the energy into the dantian (an area below the navel) and to keep the energy at the top light and sensitive, allowing the spirit of vitality to reach the baihui (an acupuncture point at the top of the head.)
All of this terminology can make tai chi seem rather esoteric and mystical. In fact, there is a profound science to it, and no real mysticism. It only seems weird since the only people who can understand the subjective descriptions of the experience are those who have actually had the experience. There is always a perfectly good scientific explanation for even the most magical or mysterious sounding experience. But the actual physics of it serves not real purpose to the student and is of no interest to the medical researcher.
The only people who might really be interested in the actual mechanics of tai chi are theoretical physicists. And they have quarks and quasars to keep themselves busy. There will be few government grants to determine how tai chi works. There will only be the occasional infusion of research money to determine if tai chi works and whether it should be recommended to patients.
There is even less grant money available to find out how an exercise which looks like old people sneaking up on trees can be a formidable method of self defence. How does a 75-year-old woman soundly beat an experienced martial artist who is twice her size and 50 years her junior?
For those of us who know that tai chi is good for us, and who want to become better teachers or better students, it can be instructive to try to figure out just how tai chi works.
The first thing that I would like to do, as a tai chi instructor, is explain that tai chi is not simply a choreographed dance. It is a comprehensive method for transforming mind and body. The tai chi movements that we learn are really just the context within which we practise tai chi.
The choreography is designed to encourage and develop awareness of the important core principles of posture, movement, and awareness that make tai chi so effective as a health nourishing exercise, as a fitness system, and as a martial art.
These core principles are described in several different ways. They can be broken down into as few as five or six key ideas, or they may described in terms of dozens of specific detailed instructions.
No matter how complicated the description of the core principles however, the ultimate goal is for all of them to merge into one basic idea. That is to harmonize yin and yang.
Over the next few instalments we will look at some of the ways in which the important points are described. We will also see if we can make sense of them in a way that will show us just how they contribute to the perfection of mind and body.
Without some understanding of tai chi core principles, tai chi is little more than a slow dance. However, if you can master these important points, tai chi becomes a deep and profound art with benefits that go far beyond what medical research has shown so far.
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