Eliciting the Relaxation Response with Tai Chi

relaxation response

While the name Herbert Benson might not ring a bell, his research is essential reading for anyone looking to understand eastern practices through the lens of western medicine.  His book, The Relaxation Response is a scientific validation of age-old wisdom.  It is a scientific study of how meditative practices can encourage the body to release chemicals and brain signals that cause the musculature and organs to slow down and increase blood flow to the brain.
relaxation response

The Relaxation Response

In his book he provides an intriguing metaphor.   When asked, most people would assume that there is a polar opposite to being stressed out that we naturally gravitate back to when things are not chaotic.  It would be akin to a STRESS-O-METER with stressed-out on one end and normal on the other  end.


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But research has shown that this is pretty far from the truth.  “Normal” is a middle range with stress right around the corner.  The Relaxation Response explains the mechanism that engages our sympathetic nervous system and causes our fight-or flight (read: stress) response.

meter middleWhile the body has this needed ability to fuel us when danger is near, an over abuse of this system leads to chronic stress.  Benson’s hypothesis and proven research has shown that the body also has the ability to elicit the opposite of Flight-or-Fright which he has termed the Relaxation Response.  In order to get our STRESS-O-METER down into the green zone, we have to undertake activities to make it happen.  Luckily, his research did not stop at the theoretical but detailed ways in which to make this happen.

This book is definitely a great read.  After extensive research with novice and avid meditators he created a list of steps to access this greater state of calm.  Let’s have a look at these steps and how they parallel with tai chi.

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The Relaxation Response

Tai Chi

1.   Sit quietly in a comfortable position.Comfort and relaxation are 99% of the work while performing tai chi.  His research worked with sitting meditation but I don’t believe that “comfort” has to be “sitting.”


2.  Close your eyes.Ok, so I wouldn’t suggest closing your eyes during tai chi but we definitely soften the eyes, relax them, and turn our focus within to quiet the mind and complete the form.  I actually think that tai chi has an advantage over sitting meditation with this regard.  It is much easier to not have the mind wander when we are moving.


3. Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face.  Keep them relaxed.The Relaxation Response has a progressive relaxation phase incorporating the entire body.  Tai chi is whole-body.  There are also Daoist relaxation techniques that follow this process and Silk Reeling sets going from toe to head that are often used before tai chi form work.
4.  Breathe through your nose.  Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say the word, “one”*, silently to yourself. For example, breathe in … out, “one”,- in .. out, “one”, etc.   Breathe easily and naturally.The counting helps our ability to pay attention much like the movements and the breathing is the same.
5.  Continue for 10 to 20 minutes.  You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm. When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed and later with your eyes opened. Do not stand up for a few minutes.Not a coincidence that the long form shares this time frame.  Other evidence suggests that there is some intelligence behind the amount of time it takes to complete the form.
6.  Do not worry about whether you are successful in achieving a deep level of relaxation.  Maintain a passive attitude and permit relaxation to occur at its own pace.  When distracting thoughts occur, try to ignore them by not dwelling upon them and return to repeating “one.”Not acceptance again!  What next?  Are you going to tell me to relax?  Progress in tai chi is dependent on acceptance.


Summarizing the importance of working towards the relaxation response

It is not enough for us to be “not stressed” and to hope that we are in a good place.  Positive mental states and maintaining a low-stress disposition are dependent on us actively engaging in routines that cause the parasympathetic nervous system to take over and reduce muscle tension and stress hormones.  While Dr. Benson’s research was conducted on standard meditation practices I feel that tai chi offers the same benefits while moving.  For anyone looking for motivation or justification for their practice, his book is engaging and a must.


The Relaxation Response

Scientific research related to the relaxation response

Relaxation Response – Steps


Scott Prath

Scott has been practicing and teaching tai chi and qigong since 2000. He is a lead instructor for the Austin Chen Tai Chi Association. His interest in the internal martial arts began after traveling in India and Nepal, and he has since traveled to China to train. Scott has published over 100 articles on tai chi with a focus on research showing the benefits of practicing.

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