by Dan Kleiman
The evidence is in that slow movement, coupled with body awareness not only has astounding health benefits but amazing psychological benefits as well. Recently, the Los Angeles Times published a story about the widespread use of slow movement , awareness-based therapies, for the treatment of pain brought on by “…cancer and cancer treatments, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis and other diseases and conditions, in pain clinics and integrative medicine centers. These treatment plans include such routines as Tai Chi and Hatha Yoga.
One of the main reasons that programs such as Tai Chi, Qigong and Yoga are so effective in managing pain is that the exercises help to relieve the depression often caused by chronic pain, greatly improving the quality of life. Continued practice not only keeps depression at bay but also improves confidence. In the above-mentioned study patients with chronic low back pain took a 12 week course of Hatha Yoga had significantly less problems with depression and disability than the standard care control group did. The same study using Tai Chi in treating the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis reported less pain, stress and a much greater awareness of their body and more confidence.
Medical experts are divided as to why these treatments are so effective. The most common consensus among researchers however is that the exercises encourage parasympathetic relaxation responses that reduce the stress response, inhibit inflammation, promotes immune functions and stimulates healing. They believe that the slow, deliberate movements extend the benefits of cardiovascular exercise to a much deeper level, drawing on previously untapped resources.
The graceful, choreographed movement sequences of Tai Chi, called the “solo form” begin the process of merging mind, body and spirit. While learning solo form Tai Chi, students learn to feel different internal qualities and their outward manifestations. These different “energies” are called the 13 Postures of Tai Chi. As you perfect the 13 Postures, you are better able to relax: you sink your energy, lengthen the spine, relax the joints and muscles and calm the mind.
When combined with appropriate breathing exercises, in which the breath is in harmony with the movements, the internal musculature of the shoulders, lower back and legs will open , with each breath taken. This promotes stillness, sensitizes the mind to both internal and external perceptions, suppresses jagged, hurried thought processes and raises the spirit.
Later on, students more to two-person exercises called Push Hands. In Push Hands, you engage in extension and retraction movements in response to another person. You learn to neutralize your fight or flight response by grounding the other person’s force, in a gradual, non-threatening, systematic progression of exercises.
In this video, you can see how our typical response is to either tense up or run away when we are faced with a threat: http://youtu.be/dbt1nC9jypI
Tai Chi trains you to respond in a completely different way. You learn to “sink your chi”, staying grounded, present, and connected to the reality of the situation when you are faced with a mental, emotional, or physical challenge.
In Tai Chi Push Hands, you learn that forcing a situation to resolve in a pre-determined way won’t work. Instead, you have to go into each encounter “grounded” and “listening”, or engaged and with an open mind. The big difference with Tai Chi, though, is that you do practices that help you learn this idea in your body. It’s not just something you tell yourself.
Where your solo form practice helps begin the healing process by gradually eliminating chronic pain, stiffness and/or depression, interactive practices allow you to go deeper into the psychological dimensions of your relationships with people all around you.
Push Hands exercises also address problems with visual perception and balance, by introducing resistance, reaction time, and sensitivity to outside factors. There are currently many studies, and more being currently conducted, that illustrate the many health benefits, both physical and psychological that students of Tai Chi, Qigong, and Yoga receive. These exercises have been shown to not only be great for preventing illness and promoting psychological well-being, but more and more medical professionals are exploring ways to integrate these traditional practices into treatment programs for their patients.