Tai Chi Chuan: Stress Release, Self-discipline, and Strength

Tai Chi Chuan has been around for about thousand a years. It is a martial art designed to do battle with an opponent, using an “elastic force” that can be developed within us. It was originally developed by Chang San Feng, a wandering mystic and Taoist philosopher, and inspired by the movements of a bird fighting a snake. It is both firm and yielding, empty and full, and will strengthen body and mind. I could present many “evidence based” studies to prove to the reader that Tai Chi has benefits in many areas. But, time speaks for itself and quite frankly, a blog based on my opinion and observation suits me just fine.

You probably have an image in your head now about Thai Chi Chuan. People dressed in baggy outfits moving slowly together in silence through a series of odd poses. I often imagined intense looking Chinese men with shiny black braids or bald heads peering menacingly at me as they magically worked with an invisible Chi force that could instantly kill an opponent. Tai Chi was mystical, haunting, alluring, something I always wanted to try but never seemed to make the time. I watched David Carradine in “Kung Fu” back in the 70’s and imagined living and training in a monastery, wondering what that would be like, what kind of person would I be today? Let’s not forget that all of my fantasies of Tai Chi had haunting Chinese music in the background…

In 2010, I herniated my disc and became fairly incapacitated with pain for about 2 months. Between my husband, another wonderful Osteopath Jennifer Highland, rest, an anti-inflammatory diet, and some PT, surgery was avoided. But my back has never been the same and frankly at the age of 51, it did not seem feasible to challenge that too much. I knew it was finally time to allow myself to take a Tai Chi class. For over 20 years I had given my life’s blood to dance, teaching other people and ignoring my growing need for rest and peace in the fast paced world of owning a studio. Even though I had sold the studio about a year before hurting myself, the fast paced dancer was still haunting me and perhaps because of that, the universe slapped me down with injury, forcing me to pay attention, finally.

I hauled myself over to the Common Man Spa in the fall of 2010 for my first class with Darcy Cushing. A petite and smiling woman whose true love for Tai Chi simply emanates from her every pore. She hardly resembled the intense Chinese master I was imagining with the intense stare… Darcy began by showing me two of the slowest moves in the universe, in silence, and made me repeat them for an hour straight. She told me to relax and allow myself to learn slowly without a timetable. She assured me that it would all happen in good time. I had no choice but to believe and immediately dropped my dancer expectation to learn as many contorted moves as humanly possible in super human time, and began to gently make my way through 108 moves in slow set. In silence. It took me a year. They say you can learn it in 3 months. Sure, if you go at least 2-3 times per week. I didn’t do that the first year, more like 1-2 days per week.

It also took time to get past my own romantic visions and expectations of what I believed Tai Chi should do for me. I imagined suddenly seeing energy fields, being able to take my opponent down with just a brooding stare, and my back would magically heal while being transported into an immediate state of bliss and relaxation. Instead, the concept of learning a martial art and self-discipline began to emerge. Silence also does a curious thing and allows you to listen to the noise in your own head. I began to notice my thought patterns. This was not comfortable or fun. These patterns appeared to influence both my feelings, about myself and how I perceived other’s words. It was as if I could see my filter that all perceptions of the world passed through before they integrated into my conscious mind. This has probably been the most profound gift given by the practice of Tai Chi so far–besides my ability to fight in slow motion and have really strong thighs… In that silence when you can see it, you can choose to hold onto it, or you can choose to move your thoughts in another direction. Seems kind of profound… Gasp! Is that energy work? I like to think so. My other teacher Bill Bernsen likes to remind me that people often quit Tai Chi because when they begin to see themselves, they don’t like what they see. So they quit when it gets kind of tough and gritty instead of moving with it to see where it takes them.

In terms of stress release, seeing your own thought patterns is life changing. Everyone talks about releasing stress, but how do you really do that? We can temporarily release stress through breathing, relaxing, exercise and other methods. But how do you let go of mental garbage? If we look close enough, we are often victims of our own self-created prisons, trapped behind the bars of our own negative self-perpetuating thought patterns. These unhealthy thought patterns can cause issues that ripple into our lives. We look to doctors and psychiatrists and expect them to heal us when it’s really a dance and collaboration between the healer and those needing healing. A dance that may require us to change some harmful thought patterns that lead to unhealthy lifestyle patterns like poor diet, lack of exercise, bad relationships, all influenced by our thoughts. Our thoughts are the beginning and can make us feel attracted to healthy or damaging lifestyle patterns. We hold certain patterns and perpetuate them in endless cycles, like being caught in a big strong whirlpool you can’t get out of. In my experience,Tai Chi allows you to get to the outside edge of the whirlpool and catch another current that will transport you out, if you want to. But you have to do the work to get there and no one else can do it for you.

Tai Chi is an effective lifestyle tool that can strengthen the body and the mind. I began Tai Chi because of my back and it has strengthened it and my body without harm. In fact it’s deceivingly strengthening and my husband and I often remark how good it feels to hike up a mountain now. It has improved my balance, given me a way to meditate while moving, and added a bond to my relationship with Jeff. It is a discipline that deserves practice. Tai Chi also brought so much more than can be explained, and I have done my best to share that experience. It is not for those who expect to feel love and light all the time, not because you can’t feel that way by practicing Tai Chi. Learning self-discipline and facing the self, is just not always comforting. In reality we must go to places in our own being and clean them out to get well. The beauty of Tai Chi is that seeing and knowing your true self, can free you. And when you feel free, there is less stress. With less stress, you feel better.

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