It seems like every day there is new research showing how Tai Chi and Chi Kung can benefit our health. The latest include how Tai Chi may reduce arthritic pain and inflammation, how it may improve kidney and heart function in people with kidney and heart disease, and how Chi Kung reduces fatigue in survivors of prostate cancer. However, it’s important to realise that the benefits of Tai Chi and Chi Kung extend beyond improving such things as joint health and kidney function, important as such things are. Underlying these relatively tangible effects there are more subtle benefits, the sort of things which are not so easy to measure in scientific trials. For instance, they help us to understand ourselves better.
In the’ Art of War’, one of the classic texts of the whole Chinese martial art tradition from which Tai Chi springs, the ancient Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu tells us “know yourself and know your enemy and you will be ever victorious”. It goes without saying that our enemy here need not be an actual opponent or military force; it could even be our own tendency to laziness, lack of self-belief, or greed. But anyway, before we think about knowing our enemy, Sun Tzu wants us to know ourselves. A key aspect of Tai Chi and Chi Kung is that they give us the opportunity to do just that.
Of course we might think, or assume, that we know ourselves already, but it is likely that there is a way to go. Indeed, it is likely that there will always be a way to go, that our understanding of ourselves can progress and deepen indefinitely; and perhaps if we are not on such a journey, we will be at root frustrated or lost.
But how do we come to know ourselves better? This happens on a number of levels, the first of which is the level of the body. It may seem crazy that we do not know our own body – after all we have been living with, in or through it for all of our life! But the fact remains that a person’s body is often unknown territory, a mysterious landscape, an undiscovered country. Knowing our body is more than just knowing a few facts about it, like where the sacrum is or what the trapezius muscle does, although such knowledge may help. Rather we need to know our body by being aware of it, and increasing and expanding that awareness as time goes by, and this is a cornerstone of the practice of Tai Chi and Chi Kung.
On a basic level we may learn that our wrists are not as supple as they could or should be, or that our leg muscles are not as strong as we thought they were. We might learn that our shoulders are stiff or our breathing is shallow. But as our practice loosens our wrists and strengthens our legs, we start to learn about Qi (Chi) itself. As we move through a Tai Chi form, or work on a Chi Kung stance, we start to understand what the Chinese mean by this word. We feel our flowing Qi; we come to know that we are more than just a lump of skin and bone attached to a brain; we learn that we are movement, energy, life - and we learn how to protect and nourish this Qi and thus how to protect and nourish our life itself.
On this level, also, is the natural world of which we are, modern living notwithstanding, an integral part. Through Tai Chi and Chi Kung we learn to breathe (once again, we may have thought we would know how to do that already, but it may not be so!). The process of breathing is of course an ongoing exchange between ourselves and the world around us, and so in learning to breathe we come to understand more deeply how we are inextricably a part of that world, and always will be.
It’s also interesting to notice that many Tai Chi and Chi Kung moves and positions are named after natural phenomena. A Tai Chi form may include ‘White crane spreads its wings’, ‘Parting the horse's mane’, ‘Golden rooster stands on one leg’ and ‘Hands wave like clouds’. The ancients learnt from nature, the way animals, bird and even clouds move. Tai Chi and Chi Kung tie us into this awareness. In a way, we become the white crane, or the passing clouds, just for a moment. This returns us to nature and our place in nature, which we have, perhaps since the industrial revolution or even earlier, began to become alienated from. We need to know ourselves in context, as part of the natural world. This is a profound thing, a sense of oneness; it can be a tangible experience when we do a Tai Chi form, for instance.
On a more subtle level, perhaps, is the level of our habitual tendencies. Someone once said that a person is really just a collection of habits, and there is some truth in this (especially as we get older!). We learn about these habitual tendencies by coming up against boundaries, as we do with a Tai Chi form or set of Chi Kung exercises. It is our habitual tendencies that disrupt the harmonious engagement with the form, that disrupt the smooth flow of Qi. For instance we may have a tendency to be lazy, so if we are doing a Chi Kung stance which is hard work, we may be tempted to skimp. Of course it is important to practice with a teacher and/or fellow students; left to our own devices we may be able to ignore this lazy habit, maybe even convincing ourselves that we are following the Tao in not pushing ourselves too much, when in fact we are just following the easy way out! But once we are aware of this tendency, we can find ways to work on it when we are practising alone as well.
Similarly we may have a tendency to impatience. We may be rushing towards the end of the Tai Chi form, rushing towards the next move, even before we have completed the move we are doing now. That, of course, is not the way. Why do we do that? What is so unsatisfactory about the present that we always want to be in the future? Such impatience disrupts the flow of Qi, and we learn to recognise when this is happening, what it feels like.
The point here is that our mental states, habitual ones especially, are reflected in how we hold and move our body; so Tai Chi and Chi Kung can reflect back to us not only what is going on in our body, but also what is happening in our mind. (Although from the point of view of the classical Chinese tradition in which they have their origin, the distinction we are accustomed to make in the west between mind and body does not hold in any rigid sense.) One way this works is that as Tai Chi or Chi Kung loosens any tightness or constriction in our body, corresponding emotional blockages may also start to free up; by working on our body, we liberate our mind.
To read more about how Tai Chi and Chi Kung can help you, go to www.lifestyles-hma.co.uk.