Tai chi for strength and balance in body, mind and life

Shanghai sunrise

In China you often see people of all ages and abilities coming together to practise tai chi. Image credit: Justin Guariglia

Tai chi and me

I first became a student of tai chi, an ancient form of Chinese exercise which I now teach, following a trip to Southeast Asia in 2004. At that time I always had a busy mind, a never-ending mental ‘to do’ list that was impossible to escape from.

A close friend who knew about this tendency suggested that I join him in a tai chi session. So I did, and found immediately that I could switch off my mind and simply focus on learning the movements. It was a revelation. I was hooked from the start.

Tai chi is all about breathing and moving in a relaxed way. There is a lot to learn when you first become a student but the principles teach you to take it all in calmly with an open heart and mind.

In 2004 learning something calmly was not easy for me to do. I have always been a high achiever and prone to giving myself a hard time for not doing or being enough of this or that. No doubt many people reading this often feel the same.

In those early days of learning I would leave class and instantly forget everything I’d just been taught. And even though tai chi gave me a space in which I could quieten my mind, I nonetheless found myself getting frustrated for not progressing quickly enough, for not making things happen when my mind told me they should. But tai chi can not be learned through the mind alone.

It’s a kinaesthetic learning, a learning through your body’s memory. You practice the movements and, over time, your body remembers what to do. Ultimately, tai chi is about connection of your body, mind and spirit. But you can’t force your body to learn by telling it what to do with your mind. You have to relax and allow it to come. Eventually, it will.

On Friday 19 February 2016 I am running a workshop for massage therapists on ‘Tai chi principles for effective body use’. I am passionate about the benefits of tai chi and would like to share them with my fellow practitioners. But more on that, including details of how to book a place, later.

The health benefits of tai chi

Tai chi is based on observations of nature and designed to improve the flow of chi, the life-force energy that lives within us all, around the body. It travels through our meridians – a set of internal pathways that carry this vital energy – like a river and comes from the tantien, the body’s energy centre, which sits just below the belly button.

When our chi flows better we think more clearly and feel more connected, we experience inner peace. And – somewhat incongruously in a society that values pushing yourself as hard as you can for that promotion or the impossible to reach ‘110 per cent’ you often hear talk of on talent shows – achieving that flow is all about action without force.

Tai chi develops muscle tone, balance and stability without straining the body. It lowers blood pressure, improves breathing, circulation and the immune system. It is even prescribed on the NHS for things like arthritis, because it gives you both inner and outer strength.

Tai chi principles and everyday life

From time to time most of us probably feel that we could be doing more, that we really ought to push ourselves to meet one expectation or another. No matter what your role at work or at home, the pressure to excel in our society is ever-present.

Not only is pressure of that kind hard to escape from but it can quickly lead to stress and disconnection. Whether this manifests as working too hard, a disproportionate reaction to a late bus or anything seemingly not going ‘your way’, this feeling of forcing yourself to do or be something that you aren’t or can’t be in the moment is the very opposite of tai chi, which teaches you to be grounded and relaxed wherever you are, whatever you are doing.

Tai chi asks us to yield to whatever the universe is showing us, rather than fight against it with force. The movements are gentle yet strong, like breeze in a sail. Too much breeze, or fighting against what there is, could overpower the boat and capsize its cargo. But working with it, adjusting the sail and yielding to its invisible force will gently push you along and get you to wherever you need to be.

Mindfulness, another practice I employ both personally and professionally, works on exactly the same principles. There is such peace and power in letting go of the perceived need for force.

Tai chi and massage

Sometimes as a massage therapist, as with any vocation, there can be a temptation to meet force with force, to push and knead harder at that knot or whatever it may be and make it do our bidding. But as much as it matters to meet the needs of your client, meeting the needs of your own body is just as important.

Because tai chi helps you to achieve a heightened physical and mental awareness, if something within you is out of kilter then you are much more likely to notice it.

Both holistic massage therapy and tai chi training fuel your ability to be in your body in a healthy and grounded way. When you are better connected with your body it will give you cues when something is not quite right. This will stop you from overreaching or straining to release, for example, any tension that your client may be holding.

Tai chi also helps to keep you grounded and topped up energetically. There is huge potential for holistic massage therapists to become depleted of energy because they, as is the case with lots of people in caring professions, have a tendency to ‘over-give’. It’s great to want to do the best by your clients but if all you ever do is give then you will quickly burn out.

I often practice chi kung, the moving meditation part of tai chi, in the time I have between clients. Chi kung is all about calming your mind and getting your chi flowing through breathing and simple movements.

It’s a great way to top up your energy, your tantien, and bring you back to yourself. That way, when your next client comes through the door you feel refreshed, renewed and ready to go.

Tai chi principles for effective body use

If you are a massage therapist and would like to find out more about employing the principles of tai chi in your practice then call BCMB on 0117 946 6371 to book your place on my ‘Tai chi principles for effective body use’ workshop on Friday, 19 February, 2016.

I am a passionate advocate of the benefits of tai chi, not just as a massage therapist but as a human being. I train with people in their 70s and 80s – a time of life we often associate with fragility and failing health – and it never ceases to amaze me how much grace and power tai chi has given and will continue to give them.

The Bristol School of Tai Chi opens its doors to new students four times a year and this Monday, 28 September, is new starter week.

New starter week gives you a chance to come along, meet the teachers, have a go and potentially sign up. More details are available at: http://www.bristoltaichi.com

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