Tai Chi Mental Health Benefits & 4 Myths About Quieting the Mind


I wanted to write an article contradicting the disastrous notions in our culture that 1) great mental health is reserved for a selected few, 2) that there is nothing we can do independently without the support of others or medical intervention to improve our disposition, and that 3) “good mental health” is something that can be “obtained” or something you just have forever, without maintenance and continual work on improvements. The truth is that there are numerous tai chi mental health benefits that you can start experiencing immediately.

Tai chi directly benefits mental health bringing our conscious focus into the body and present moment and allowing a practitioner to experience periods of clear, calm thinking.

Too many people are suffering from mental health issues that span the spectrum from being continually under the weight of frustration and negative thinking to making disastrous life-threatening decisions. So, we need to cut to the chase here. Let’s begin by sharing the mental health benefits of doing tai chi. If you are anything less than a positive person you need to give tai chi a try!

Then I want to head in the other more positive direction. How can we experience ecstatic thought? Epiphanies? Even a divinity of thinking? Because here’s the truth: If we pursue an exalted mental state through tai chi, our daily activities, or meditation, we will most often land in the middle, which is balanced mental health.

Benefits of Tai Chi For Mental Health

Tai chi and mental health research has been conducted in the West since the 1960s but has recently undergone a surge of interest. Medical treatments and phycological treatments are not effective in every case so alternative medicine is increasingly being considered. When treatments are effective, results are improved or maintained with physical activities such as tai chi. A rise in healthcare costs has enabled funding for therapeutic processes that are less expensive. And, tai chi is considered a safe physical alternative for aging populations who have mobility restrictions or drug restrictions.

Where does that leave us? Finally we are getting Western-backed research that is verifying the “claims” that tai chi has been making about improved mental health for centuries. Some of the reported benefits of tai chi for mental health improvements include:

  • Improvements in psychological well-being1
  • Reduced stress1
  • Reduced anxiety1
  • A reduction in mood disturbance1
  • Increased self-esteem1
  • Reduced symptoms of major depressive disorder (MDD)2
  • Modulating the body’s inflammation system2
  • Greater response to depression treatment1
  • Improved remission rate of symptoms (compared to control group)1
Tai Chi and Qigong for the Treatment and Prevention of Mental Disorders – Ryan Abbott, MD, JD, MTOMa and Helen Lavretsky, MD, MSb1 Treating Depression With Tai Chi: State of the Art and Future Perspectives: Jian Kong, Georgia Wilson, Joel Park, Kaycie Pereira, Courtney Walpole, and Albert Yeung.2

The Science Behind Why Tai Chi is Good for Mental Health

I know, I said I was going to “dive right in” but the study by Abbott and Lavretsky caught my eye because they highlighted a study showing what is going on in the brain when someone is depressed or has poor mental health:

Studies have shown that depression is linked to structural and functional abnormalities in brain regions that are associated with emotion processing, self-representation, reward, and external stimulus (i.e., stress, distress) interactions. Among these brain regions are the hippocampus, amygdala, anterior cingulate, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex.

And, that tai chi has an affect on regulating these regions of the brain:

Studies also suggest that core components of mind–body interventions such as Tai Chi may include attentional control, emotion regulation, and self-awareness4

ang YY, Holzel BK, Posner MI. The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nat Rev Neurosci (2015) 16(4):213–25. doi: 10.1038/nrn39164

It should be noted that all studies are quick to point out that more research is need, that some sample sizes are considered small, and that more validity studies are needed which run a study with a new group to see if the benefits can be replicated. All of this being true, when taking all of the results in aggregate it is clear that tai chi has mental health benefits without any of the other therapy’s side effects.

4 Myths about Quieting the Mind and Improving Our Mental State

There are many myths about quieting the mind or improving our mental state that I believe are holding many of us back. In order to understand this, we have to delve into the topic of consciousness. The word consciousness carries a certain reputation in the West but for the purpose of this article I want you to think about the mental or emotional state that someone who is seeking or experiencing consciousness would experience. This idea of consciousness brings it more into alignment with our idea of mental health.

Myth # 1:  Mastering your mind – becoming conscious, improving your mental health, takes a long time

In our culture and folklore we see consciousness or divinity as some great epiphany, lightening strike, or immediate change.  Blamo! Someone was meditating for 20 years and their skull cracks open and they are infused with purple light.  Or, the ubiquitous grey-haired man climbs up a mountain in the rain and holds something over his head screaming.  Poof!  But what if I told you that it was more like a spectrum?

Consciousness happens in an instant and then we spend our time trying to get more of it.  Negative situations have the ability to propel us forward down this path and cause radical change.  This is quite common and those that have this experience are thankful for the thing that went wrong.  For the rest of us, we don’t want a car crash or surgery-gone-awry just to feel whole.  We wake up and then we make incremental change.

You will not be a Zen Master tomorrow but tangible improvement is yours for the taking, now.  You will begin on a path that will lead you to greater and greater improvement over time.  What we want to dispel is the notion that you have to put your time in and await an enlightenment that is always just around the corner.

Myth # 2:  You have to be part of a religion or eastern tradition

Religious groups and eastern internal pursuits contain the highest number of people who embody what we are after.  It makes sense, these cultures and practices have spent millennia working on ways to advance our ability to dictate what our mind thinks and how positive it is.  Much of what we know about consciousness is the direct result of their hard work and discoveries.  However, there are just as many people (or more) participating in these traditions who suffer greatly from the chaos going on in their head.

Being part of one of these traditions, knowing the tai chi form, whatever interests you, does not guarantee a calm mind.  It can help but you need to understand why your mind is not focused and address the problem directly.  If you are a practitioner of any of these traditions as we are, your focus and results will be dramatically enhanced.  But you need to 1) believe that this internal quietness is available to you and 2) pursue it directly.

Myth # 3:  Silence is outside of the body

Myths about Becoming Conscious

We are very used to thinking that quietude and silence exist in our external environment.  Is the radio off?  Will she please stop talking so loud?  Man, that air conditioner is loud.  I need to get it fixed.   I don’t hear anything; therefore, it is quiet.

We can also think of quiet as being inside us.  My mind is racing.  My mind won’t shut up.  That song is stuck in my head.

But the silence that we are after is not the absence of noise.  It is noticing that there is a silence that is always present.  Every noise, every thought, arises against the backdrop of this silence.  It has to!   If it didn’t, how would you know it is noisy at all?  What are you craving or lamenting?  What are you trying to get back to? You are trying to experience the silence that is already present inside of us.

Thinking happens whether you want it to or not.  AND! Thinking stops whether you want it to or not.  You can’t control it. When you stop trying to control it, you can see that thinking occurs in a vast space. And when the thinking stops, this vast space is still there.  That is silence.

Have you ever been so absorbed in a thought or an emotion that you had no idea what a person is saying to you?  Or for a split second had all the music or noise around you stop (in your head) even though it was still playing.  That is silence.  We do not want to create silence.  We want to tune in to the powerful silence that is already there.

Myth # 4:  “Enlightenment” or “Consciousness” is only for certain people

This fourth myth might be a little hard to accept.  I know for me, growing up in a Christian tradition, the idea of higher-ordered consciousness was the domain of God.  Any talk of enlightenment or divinity smelled of sacrilege.  Who was I to think that I was worthy of this?  Ascribe to it?  Strive for it?  Sure.  But, be conscious?  No way.  That’s arrogant.

Know that some people (billions) define enlightenment or conscious thought in a very different way.  And when you re-read your traditional scripture through their lens it takes on a completely different look.  A calm “conscious” mind is available to all of us and is actually far more familiar than you would expect.

You Have Probably Already Experienced Enlightenment

En-lightened – do you get it? A light frame of mind. Light thought. Doesn’t that sound nice? If these ideas rub you the wrong way, you are only guilty of being Western.  What if our belief systems got it wrong?  More likely, what if in the 2000 years since our religious books were actually written, if they have been increasingly misinterpreted?  We have been given the gift of several experiences that allow us to taste “divinity.”  The problem is, these experiences typically just happen by accident. Or, because we are culturally sensitive to the idea of being “enlightened” so we do not equate some of our early experiences with a supreme sense of being.

Here’s the catch: in the following examples there is true mental freedom, joy, and happiness. See the positive mental state these experiences can provide and then actively pursue that feeling through meditation, tai chi, qi gong, yoga, prayer, or your activity of choice.

The Epiphany

Awareness creates a knowing, but not the type of knowing that turns into beliefs or ideas.  It is a deeper knowing that is more significant.  This is knowing that we associate with words like epiphany, insight, or ah-ha moments.

When we experience an ah-ha moment we respond with our entire body.  The epiphany enters our minds, we gasp, get chills, smile, clasp our hands together, and enjoy the deafening silence in our brain that surrounds this brilliant new idea.  We are flooded with adrenaline to type, record, or write fast enough to capture our thoughts.

It is an instantaneous harmonization of the body and mind.  We have all had this feeling and man is it enjoyable!  A-ha moments are typically infrequent but I am happy to tell you that an increase in awareness corresponds to an increase in epiphanies.  By calming the mind, we actually create the space for these “strokes of genius” to hit us.

I think it is interesting that the word epiphany rarely refers to its original intention. The “the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi (Matthew 2:1–12) still celebrated in early January. The old-new connection is obviously there.

good mental health - epiphany

Creativity

Neuroscience now offers us insight into why a creative experience makes us feel so closely united with the divine.  Brain imagery shows either a lighting up of both hemispheres or a temporary domination of the right hemisphere over the analytical half.

We all have been there.  You are so engrossed in an activity that you forgot to eat.  6 hours of a Saturday are completely blown away as you work on your hobby.  When you finally look up, it’s dark outside. Your wife taps you on the shoulder as you toil on something you love.  You say she scared you and she says she called your name three times.

Creative acts have the power to completely unplug us and fuel us with so much energy that we temporarily forget about food, water, and rest.

mental health -seeing yourself

Personal Memory – Will the real you please stand up?

In your life you may have been a child, a morose teenage, a soldier, a college student, a mom, a sister, a spouse, an employee, coworker, and boss.  If I lined up pictures of these 10 “people” and asked you who they were, you would name the 10 people as I just did.  But what if these were all pictures of you across time?  What would you say?  “Well, that’s me!”

How is it possible that you can be all of these people?  And when you remember yourself at any one point in time, who is the YOU that you are remembering?  What is the thing that remains the same across time?  What is the being that remembers being a child and doesn’t feel like the old man who is looking at you in the mirror?

You want to easily understand awareness?  This is it:  For all the highfalutin ideas about meditation, it is nothing more than getting in touch with this YOU, sitting there, and really enjoying that company for as long as you can make it last.

I would even venture to say that this is the reason behind much of the discontent in life.  We intrinsically know WHO we are.  When our actions or our life do not match this, we feel like we lost something.  We love our childhood friends because they know the real YOU despite all the external changes.  We endure the ribbing from our siblings and close family because they love YOU no matter what you look like or how you change.  Even when family share their advice it often hurts or helps the most because they want you to be “true to yourself.”

mental health -seeing yourself

Consciousness, awareness, free thought, no-mind; whatever you want to call it, the purpose is to free your “self” from the constant deluge of the mind’s constant chatter so you can enjoy what is right in front of you and/or get down to business.  And yes, it takes some effort and work.  To stay the course and enjoy the course, you need to be very clear about WHO it is you want to be and where your efforts are leading you.

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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