by Lauren Swanger, holistic health enthusiast and research journalist
Balance. Energy. Simplicity. Calmness. Oneness. Relaxation. Wholeness. Harmony.
Any of these words could describe the effect the application of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) can have on the typical stressed-out American. TCM is rooted in a distinctive, inclusive and systematic theoretical structure and is based on the flow of energy, or chi, throughout the body. Chi flows through the body via pathways which are called meridians. There are a total of twelve meridians in the body which correspond to specific organs, organ systems, or functions. This flow of energy is responsible for controlling the functions of the human mind and body. An imbalance of chi causes illness and a correction to this flow restores the body’s balances, and therefore, health.
TCM is based, in part, on the Taoist belief that humankind is part of the universe and we, and the universe, are interconnected. Chinese medicine teaches us that what happens to one part of the body has an influence on all other parts of the body. Similarly, the mind and body are viewed as being one where the mind influences the body and the body influences the mind. Because Chinese medical philosophy and theory make up the base of TCM, many of these concepts have no true counterpart in Western medicine. TCM is a systematic and holistic approach that links the mind, body, and spirit to identify imbalance in the body.
There are eight “branches” of Chinese medicine. This system of practice coordinates a variety of therapeutic techniques: meditation, qigong or breathing exercises, nutrition, tai chi or mindful movement, Fengshui, herbology, bodywork and acupuncture. A practitioner will systematically move through these branches with you, depending upon your unique needs, in order to restore your health. Herbology uses plants, animals, and minerals to help the body restore its state of balance.
Tai chi is a gentle and effective way to reduce everyday stress while becoming stronger and more flexible. Originally developed as a method of self-defense, tai chi has transformed over the years to a gentle, graceful, form of exercise accompanied by deep, purposeful breathing. It promotes tranquility of the mind and body through slow, flowing movements and is a self-paced system of exercise with many variations and styles. Some styles place greater importance on health while others stress the martial art aspect of tai chi. Regardless of style, tai chi focuses on the grace of bodily movement and attention to form.
This ancient Chinese practice brings with it many health benefits when learned correctly and practiced regularly. Tai chi helps increase aerobic capacity, energy, muscle strength, balance, and stamina. It can enhance quality of sleep while bolstering the immune system, and even lower cholesterol and blood pressure. The movements are easy on the joints and may help reduce the fall risks in older adults. Another huge benefit is that due to its low impact and gentleness it is, more often than not, safe for all ages and fitness levels. It is also inexpensive, can be done alone or in a group, requires no particular equipment, and may be done indoors or out.
While tai chi is gentle and relatively easy to learn, consider finding a qualified instructor from your local fitness center, health club or senior center as opposed to buying a DVD on the subject. An instructor can teach you the correct positions and how to breathe correctly. Also, if you have specific injuries, balance or coordination issues, an instructor can teach variations on positions in order to practice tai chi more safely. There are numerous benefits to this practice, especially when done consistently. If possible, try practicing tai chi each day at the same time and same place. Developing a routine will help you master the movements and achieve a greater sense of overall calm. If your schedule is unpredictable, remember to practice the mind-body concepts without the movements when you are in stressful situations. Tai chi, in its many forms, is a wonderful, holistic way to release mental and physical stress.