Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese martial art whose slow, fluid movements are great for stress relief and improving mood. Clinical trials have shown that training Tai Chi reduces levels of stress hormone cortisol1, and increases happy hormone endorphine2, as well as alpha and theta brainwaves which are associated with relaxation3. But why does Tai Chi do this? For World Mental health day, I have applied 16 years training experience and some common sense to figure out why this is so.
Take your mind off your troubles
When you start training Tai Chi, you’re given a number of things to focus on; like co-ordinating your arms and legs, your breath and movement, and keeping your spine straight as you move the body in spirals. The teacher aims to give the student just enough material keep them focussed on the body, which then takes the mind off other concerns.
Concentrate on the body
Using the body as an object of focus is a grounding experience. Many people spend most of their time thinking rather than physically feeling, and end each day with aches and pains without knowing how they got there. Basic Tai Chi posture, with a straight spine and relaxed muscles is a healthy way of standing which allows student to drop tension out of the body.
Tai Chi practise is slow, which allows students to move the body with a detail not usually afforded by daily life. This kind of conscious movement reveals postural issues, which can be relieved as you move, leaving students feeling more comfortable after class, and empowered as a self-managed path out of discomfort emerges.
A key element of Tai Chi is co-ordinating movement with the breath. This gives students a more conscious control of breath, which is vital in regulating mood. When a person is stressed, their shoulders go up and breathing becomes fast and shallow. By adopting a relaxed posture and breathing in a deeper fashion, it’s possible to convince the brain it is already relaxed via a cluster of 175 neurons found in a part of the brain known as the ‘respiratory pacemaker’.4.
Internal Energy AKA Qi
Over time, this co-ordinated way of moving the body and breathing becomes natural. As the quality of movement improves, with the right tuition, students will experience sensations of ‘qi’ or internal energy. Qi can be thought of as life force, other cultures have conceived of this as prana, or pneuma, and Star Wars referred to it as the force. In traditional Chinese training, qi is referred to as factually as the rice you have for lunch.
I’ve been training Tai Chi for 16 years, and personally started to feel my qi around the 2 year mark. All of my long term students bar one have gone on to feel qi, which can manifest as heat, cold, tingling, electricty, or a tide pulling/air circulating inside the body. Whatever the experience of qi is, it is usually fascinating and pleasant.
Qi sensations start off occurring randomly, then become controllable, and increase in intensity. If your mind wanders, if your body is tense, you will not experience these pleasant sensations, which are akin to a mild trance. When you emerge from this state, you will find mind refreshed and body relaxed, as if after a hot shower.
In conclusion: focussing on the body, and combining movement with breath relaxes the mind. Conscious movement allows students to drop out the physical tension caused by stress, alleviating discomfort and empowering the self. As students progress, they have the rewarding experience of feeling qi – the key to which is a global awareness of body, mind and breath. This awareness is based on being attentive in the moment – a useful skill for those who tend to worry off into the future. As such, Tai Chi not only lifts mood during training, but can also provide a toolkit for tackling life’s rich tapestry in general.
Lee MSKC-W, Lim H-J, Lee M-S. Effects of Qi training on anxiety and plasma concentrations of cortisol, ACTH, and aldosterone: A randomized placebo-controlled pilot study. Stress health 2004;20:242-248
Rya H, Lee JHS, Shin YS, et al. Accute effect of qigong training on stress hormonal levels in man. Am J Chin Med. 1996;24(8874677): 193-198.
Liu Y, Mimura K, Wang L, et al. Physicological benefits of 24-stype Taijiquan exercise in middle-aged women. Journal of physiological anthropology and applied human science. 2003;22(5):219-225
,Lindsay A. Schwarz2
,Mark A. Krasnow et al: Science
31 Mar 2017:
Vol. 355, Issue 6332, pp. 1411-1415