Tai chi and health
The value of tai chi chuan as a therapeutic exercise has been known for hundreds of years, but it is only in recent years that scientific research has validated what was known intuitively.
Extensive comparative studies have been carried out using tal chi. One such study involved two groups of a similar age. Measurements were taken for physical strength, respiratory efficiency, circulatory function and skeletal strength. Group A were taught tai chi and instructed to practise every day. Group B, on the other hand, were left to go about their normal lives. At the end of the study the two groups were compared again in the above categorics. Group A (the tai chi group) were considerably stronger physically, and in every other respect by a large margin, than the other, non-training group.
In China a vast amount of research has been carried out into the effects of tai chi and chi kung on various physical and mental conditions. The results vary from good to quite extraordinary in many instances. Set out below are some of the effects found on the human body that are due to tai chi practice.
Cerebral cortex/nervous system
(The cerebral cortex is the principal controller of both mental and physical function in Man.) The tai chi form harmonises the movements of the four limbs (with the head and torso) and causes a state of calm. This harmonisation engenders great tranquillity and the total relaxation of the muscles. The whole nervous system is relaxed and stress no longer has its disastrous effects. Perception becomes clearer and the nervous impulses to the organs run smoothly and efficiently. With constant practice, this 'anti-stress effect' lasts the day through. It is known that stress causes many degenerative diseases, including heart disease, cancer and arthritis. Therefore, tai chi's action can benefit numerous physical functions and be an important medical preventive.
Tai chi's gentleness, the slowness of movements and the holding of the correct posture, make the muscles work gently and thoroughly. It gives tone and strength, without the side effects of more vigorous exercise. The joints are similarly exercised and strengthened during practice. Gentle pressure and constant motion mobilise the articulations, which helps to free their action, even into old age.
Posture improves measurably, and the skeletal system functions correctly, enhancing bodily health and one's perception of oneself. Tendons which control flexibility are gently stretched, and the tell tale signs of age are minimised.
The American Heart Association advises that you should exercise and achieve 60% of your M.H.R. (Maximum Heart Rate). In experiments in the United States, the research volunteers achieved this level of heart rate by using low level tai chi stances during the form, but without the excessive strain of running and similar exercise. Thus, a beneficial effect can be obtained for people wishing to exercise the heart, to keep it healthy without the bump and grind of standard exercise routines.
The form exercises the vascular system and research has shown that it causes vasodilation (increase in the diameter of blood vessels), thus increasing blood flow in the body. It has been noted that the skin is helped in this respect, consistent practice of the overall action of the form helping to smooth and tone.
Diaphragmatic breathing deepens the action of the lungs and helps oxygenate the system, stimulating vitality and helping to remove unwanted bodily toxins. The functions of both the respiratory and circulatory systems are enhanced by the free flow and efficient oxygenation of the blood. This helps the brain to work at peak efficiency.
Incorrect breathing has been associated with several degenerative diseases - when you consider that the average person uses less than one third of the lungs' capacity, insufficient oxygenation would seem the obvious conclusion. A deeper breathing pattern has also been found to affect the lymphatic system which removes toxic waste from the body. Unlike the circulatory system, which has the heart, the lymphatic system has no pump to move the lymph around the body. The increased breathing volume assists in this respect.
The diaphragmatic breathing and circular motions of the form massage the organs, including those of the digestive system, aiding their functions. The lack of stress on the nervous system and the correct nerve function to the digestive organs benefit the whole system. This has prompted tai chi's use in Far Eastern hospitals specialising in ulcers of the digestive tract, with quite impressive results.
With greater efficiency of the digestive organs, increased benefit can be achieved from the food taken in, enhancing the general well-being of the body. When the mind is agitated and under stress, more acid is secreted into the stomach. If the acid is allowed to become too strong, an ulcer will form, either in the stomach or the small intestine. With a calm mind, the excess acid will cease to over-produce, and the body will be assisted in hearing the ulcer. The alleviation of stress is obviously a very important adjunct to medical professionals treating digestive complaints.
Due to the posture and movements of tai chi, the glandular system is toned and exercised. The glandular system plays an intrinsic role in the proper functioning of the internal organs. Without glandular participation, none of the major organs would function correctly.
The glandular system controls all aspects of the sexual system. Sexual reproduction and the physical male and female characteristics during adolescence are instigated by these glands. The menstrual cycle in women is also directly controlled by the glandular system.
The immune response is triggered within the body from the activities of the glands and their associated organs.
Metabolism is controlled by the glandlular system and the metabolic rate. The metabolic rate is the speed at which energy, and consequently bodily fat, is burned in the body.
Tai chi exercise aids in the control of metabolism and thus helps to normalise body weight. Several other functions are also said to be enhanced by regular tai chi practice.
It is believed that internal exercise affects the functioning of the thymus gland, which is closely related to the immune system. The thymus plays an active role in the production of 'T cells', which are part of the immune response to disease.
It was found during experimentation that tai chi practitioners produced more antibodies after exercising with the solo form. Athletes, on the other hand, appeared to have a lower antibody reading after running 1500 metres than they had before beginning the run. This could support the long held belief that tai chi assists in the body's ability to resist disease.
Source: Yang Tai Chi Chuan, by John Hine.