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The health benefits of Tai Chi

The Chinese characters for Tai Chi Chuan can be translated as the 'Supreme Ultimate Force'. The notion of 'supreme ultimate' is often associated with the Chinese concept of yin-yang, the notion that one can see a dynamicduality (male/female, active/passive, dark/light, forceful/yielding, etc.) in all things. 'Force' (or, more literally, 'fist') can be thought of here as the means or way of achieving this ying-yang, or 'supreme-ultimate' discipline.

Tai Chi, as it is practiced in the west today, can perhaps best be thought of as a moving form of yoga and meditation combined. There are a number of so-called forms (sometimes also called 'sets') which consist of a sequenceof movements. Many of these movements are originally derived from the martial arts (and perhaps even more ancestrally than that, from the natural movements of animals and birds) although the way they are performed in Tai Chi is slowly, softly and gracefully with smooth and even transitions between them.

Health Benefits Of Tai Chi

Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese system of slowly flowing movements and shifts of balance that strengthens the legs while conditioning the tendons and ligaments of the ankles, knees, and hips, increasing their range of motion and making them more resilient, less prone to injury. The constant weight shifts train balance and body awareness, leading to confident ease of movement within the form and in everyday life. Tai Chi is a physical exercise that focuses the mind, while conditioning the body. Practicing twenty minutes a day dissipates stress and reduces stress-related debilities, increases stamina, and strengthens the body and will.

Western Science recognizes the following benefits of practicing Tai Chi: increased oxygen uptake and utilization (more efficient breathing), reduced blood pressure, slower declines in cardio vascularpower, increased bone density, increased strength and range of motion of joints, greater leg strength, knee strength, and flexibility, reduced levels of stress hormones during and after practice, improved immune function, and heightened mood states.

Science And Tai Chi

Tai Chi cultivates health benefits beyond those studied by western medicine. Tai Chi conditions the sleaves between muscles and nerves, the films that separate and support the organs, the facia. The acupuncture meridians of Chinese Medicine run through the facia. By conditioning these boundary layers between tissues, Tai Chi reduces chemical cross-linking, cellular rust. Move it or lose it, the Taoists say. The turning of the trunk flexes the spine, producing some of the same benefits as twists in Yoga (improved spinal flexibility, release of tension on the perispina muscles, alleviating imbalances that can lead to back pain while improving blood flow to the discs). And like Yoga, Tai Chi conditions the psoas, that deep muscle of balance that underlies the lower abdominal organs and mediates the relationship of the spine to the pelvis and legs. Proper Tai Chi practice places certain demands on the body: The sinking of the weight, over time, tells the legs to add muscle and bone mass, while the turning of the body, inconjunction with deep abdominal breathing, "wrings out" the organs, flushing blood out as they're compressed and allowing it to flow back in when the movement compresses. another part of the torso. This flexing and unflexing reduces pockets of stagnation in the various organ systems.

Physical strength peaks in the mid-twenties, declines modestly to age 50, and steeply thereafter. Studies showa loss of one-third of lower extremity strength by age 70. In advanced age, few people are able to stand on one leg for more than a few seconds. Premature decline need not be the case. Tai Chi exercises all the joints and major muscle groups in a slow, rhythmic, mindful way, priming the body for whatever demands the day may make. Leg strength increases with practice, which pays off every step you take, every time you stand in line, every time you climb a flight of stairs. Your joints stay loose and flexible, so everyday chores around the house and garden don't take as much out of you. When you practice Tai Chi in the morning, it's just easier to move for the rest of the day, and concentrate on what you have to do. You waste less energy and attention on body static, so you have the stamina to ride out crazy days and long hours at work and still have something left for your family, your mate, your art. Tai Chi is for anyone who wants to move with greater strength, grace, and ease as they get older.

In the U.S., studies have shown that even people in their 70's and 80's can learn a simplified series of Tai Chi forms, and benefit tremendously: Study subjects show a marked decrease in injurious falls, reductions in blood pressure, and improved measures of balance and confidence. If Tai Chi can do this for geriatric beginners, think of what it can do for someone who starts a few decades sooner, and stays with it.

Stress And Tai Chi

Stress is competing demands, over abundant choices, too much to do in too little time. Stress is modern living, the American way, Life in Silicon Valley. Chronic stress is bad because it makes the body focus on short-term emergencies, at the expense of long-term regeneration. Chronic stress undermines the body's ability to fix itself. Stanford Professor Robert Sapolsky received a MaCarthur Award for his research on stress, and codified much of the work in Why Zebras Don't get Ulcers (© 1994, W.H.Freeman and Company), a primer on stress and its consequences. Sapolsky contrasts the appropriateness of the stress response in the case of a lion chasing a zebra across the savanna with stress in the face of "modern" stressors:

"If you are that zebra running for your life, or that lion sprinting for your meal, your body's physiological response mechanisms are superbly adapted for dealing with such short-term physical emergencies. When we sit around and worry about stressful things, we turn on the same physiological responses--and they are potentially a disaster when provoked chronically for psychological or other reasons. A large body of convergent evidence suggests that stress-related disease emerges, predominantly, out of the fact that we so often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships, and promotions."

The stress response is designed to get you out of immediate danger: Your body mobilizes energy and delivers it where it's needed most. Glucose and amino acids are released from storage in your fat cells, your liver, your muscles. Heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rates go up. Blood supply is shunted from the organs (except for the heart and lungs) to the skeletal muscles. Pain is suppressed, and the mind achieves a peculiar clarity. Digestion shuts down, regenerative processes are put on hold, reproductive urges and capabilities dwindle, and, for some as yet unexplained reason, the body starts actively dismantling the immune system. Sapolsky goes on:

"During an emergency, it makes sense that your body halts long-term, expensive building projects. If there is a tornado bearing down on the house, this isn't the day to repaint the kitchen. Hold off until you've weathered the disaster. Thus, during stress, digestion is inhibited--there isn't enough time to derive the energetic benefits of the slow process of digestion, so why waste energy on it? You have better things to do than digest breakfast when you are trying to avoid being someone's lunch. Similarly, growth is inhibited during stress, and the logic is just as clear. You're sprinting for your life: grow antlers or extend your long bones some other day."

"That the stress response itself can become harmful makes a certain amount of sense when you examine the things that occur in reaction to stress. They are generally short sighted, inefficient, and penny-wise, and dollar-foolish, but they are the sorts of costly things your body has to do to respond effectively in an emergency. If you experience everyday as an emergency, you will pay the price.

If you constantly mobilize energy at the cost of energy storage, you will never store any surplus energy. You will fatigue more rapidly, and your risk of developing a form of diabetes will even increase. The consequences of chronically over-activating your cardio vascular system are similarly damaging: if your blood pressure rises to 180/140 when you are sprinting away from a lion, you are being adaptive, but if it is 180/140 everytime you see the mess in your teenager's bedroom, you could be heading for cardiovascular disease. If you constantly turn off long-term building projects, nothing is ever repaired."

If you constantly turn off long-term building projects, nothing is ever repaired. This is the bodily cost of chronic stress, life as we know it. We make it hard for our bodies to fix themselves. Anything we can do to dissipate stress is time and energy well spent. Tai Chi is a great way to reduce stress. The mental focus of the mind leading the movement, thinking only of the movement, the slow, flowing shifts of balance, the regular, deep breathing, the harmonious turning of the limbs, the circular openings and closings of the Tai Chi form make it one of the best stress reducers in the human repertoire.

This article is courtesy of Running4Women.com

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