'Stress' is the label we use to describe the experience & phenomena of the unhealthily sustained activation of the healthy fight or flight response. The fight or flight response is nature's way of giving us the impetus to get us out of trouble. 'Trouble' in this context means a perceived threat to one's health, emotional security, material security, well-being or even life. In a complex credit-crunch world with layers of over-lapping & sometimes conflicting commitments of tight deadlines, mortgages, rising prices, metaphysical uncertainties & environmental imperatives there can be a sense of continouous threat. The fight or flight response becomes a way of lfe and this takes its toll on our health and well-being.
Tai chi chuan combats stress on many levels whilst being an enjoyable & satisfying way of developing new skills, greater health & well-being that will effect deep & lasting benefits.
The characteristically slow movements of many styles of tai chi chuan help to unwind the tension from this coiled spring at deeper & deeper levels. These movements help to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, this is the mode the nervous system adopts when we are relaxing & unwinding. This is in contrast to the adrenaline/cortisol fuelled sympathetic nervous system of the fight or flight response. Without the parasympathetic nervous system we cannot sleep or allow the mind/body to rest & recuperate as we all need to do do regularly to maintain health & well-being.
For centuries the Chinese have been using tai chi chuan to help them to live longer, happier, healthier & better lives. Without using Western medical terminology tai chi chuan has been known to the Chinese to cultivate the 'yin' (corresponding to stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system) and subdue the 'yang' (the sympathetic nervous system). We live in an increasingly 'yang' society where excitement is often valued over calm and tai chi chuan can be a corrective to this one-sided emphasis.
However tai chi chuan is an 'internal martial art' & not just a series of choreographed external movements. The emphasis in tai chi chuan is on the yin overcoming the yang. Whilst it can take many years to become a competent martial artist using tai chi chuan, the emphasis on relaxation inherent in tai chi chuan practice has benefits for relief of stress at all levels of practice.
A key component of tai chi chuan is learning to relax at deeper & deeper levels as one's practice progresses. At first this relaxation is primarily physical: through awareness & practice the muscles, tendons & ligaments of the body & joints are encouraged to progressively relax in tai chi chuan positions & transitions between positions whilst maintaining effective posture & use of the body. Over time this relaxation is taken progressively deeper providing increasingly effective stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system. The benefits of this relaxation range from letting go of accumulated stresses from recent events (such as a 'full on' day at work) to deeper, perhaps previously unconscious, 'historical' stresses held deep in the body. This aspect of relaxation can have a profoundly healing effect on the individual. Further, since tai chi chuan is also a martial art, some practice is done with a training partner. Here the emphasis in non-competitive learning to be increasingly sensitive and responsive to your partner whilst continuing to progressively relax and use the body in a coordinated and effective way. Many people find this to be challenging in that it requires letting go of trying or 'end-gaming'. This requires not only a physical relaxation but also an emotional relaxation perhaps even opening up to a 'spiritual relaxation'. This emphasis on progressive deepening of relaxation, physical, emotional and even spiritual, cultivates the yin or stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. The benefits of this continue beyond the tai chi chuan class in helping to support effective sleep, promoting relaxation and 'groundedness' in daily life. In other words this explains why tai chi chuan can be profoundly effective stress-buster.
There are many styles of tai chi chuan and different schools & approaches within these styles. At a typical tai chi chi chuan class you might expect to do some gentle warm up exercises, perhaps some relaxation exercises to help you to understand how tai chi chuan is encouraging the body to be used, the movements and positions of the tai chi chuan form, and some partner work. Each of these elements help to cultivate the yin and therefore provide an antidote to the stresses of everyday life.
Are there are new types of Tai Chi Chuan classes coming out that could work for this?
Yes & no. Often in the West tai chi chuan is taught just for its health benefits and the martial element is not emphasised. This is fine as far as it goes but further benefit can be found in including the martial aspect in a non-competitive atmosphere that emphasises the need for sensitivity & receptivity through partner work. Partner work helps the individual to have immediate feedback as to how relaxed & responsive he or she is but also to work to let go of trying too hard or 'end-gaming'.
Correctly taught, tai chi chuan naturally & traditionally cultivates the yin through solo-work & partner work. It is therefore possible to adopt a traditional approach to practice that gradually brings deep & lasting benefits of reducing stress-levels & susceptibility to stress-triggers in daily life. It may be important to be wary of newer forms of tai chi chuan in case they apparently offer benefits but may have lost some of the accumulated wisdom of ages. The Chinese have been developing tai chi chuan & other approaches for centuries for health & well-being and we are now incredibly fortunate in the West to be able to benefit from this evolution of tried & tested experience. Forms of tai chi chuan that maintain continuity with these traditional forms have the potential to offer these benefits.
Written for Elle magazine by John Linney (Prasannavira)