Many people start practicing tai chi to improve or fix something in their life. This could be getting past an injury or just getting in shape. However, it’s clear that longtime practitioners experience benefits of tai chi that go well beyond the day-to-day. Tai chi seems to help them respond to everything new that comes at them in life and make decisions that are in keeping with how they want their life to improve.
The benefits of tai chi include many documented improvements in physical and mental health. Additionally, tai chi improves our adaptive response to unexpected situations and problem-solving to make better decisions, thus resulting in reported reductions in stress and improved outlook on life.
Tai chi does indeed improve specific problems like anxiety, injuries, or mental health issues. We dedicated an entire page to research supporting the use of tai chi for health improvements. But those are all knowns. For example, you were in a car accident, were injured, and want to walk better. You are older and have fallen a lot recently and want to improve your balance. But what about the things in life that surprise us? What about the things we can’t predict? What about the decisions we have to make in life like choosing a new job that could be exciting but also carry a lot of risk?
I think tai chi has a lot to teach us about these “unknown” situations and that’s why I want to tackle them directly in two ways. In this essay we will first talk about the gut feeling or “hunch” we get when having to make a decision about the unknown and how tai chi can strengthen this hunch. Then we will talk about situations that we can’t control or situations that surprise us. In these cases, the benefits of tai chi come in the form of enabling us to adapt to any circumstance.
Top 2 Benefits of Tai Chi Take One: Predictability
The thing I love to hear from a student is: “something is not right here.” What this tells me is that something feels awkward and they are becoming more highly perceptible to inconsistencies. Basically, their body is sending an uncomfortable signal that they are paying attention to and trying to correct. In normal life, this signal usually comes at the heightened experience of pain but in tai chi we are catching it at an early level and learning to tune into it.
Tai chi teaches us how to have a heightened sense of awareness.
The tai chi form is a series of movement laws we can say. If you move in one way, you are said to have good tai chi. It is reintroducing us to movements and breathing that are innate to all animals but that we may have abandoned due to bad habits. I say re-introducing because all young toddlers walk and breathe correctly until life teachers them otherwise.
Here are some examples.
Body alignment – Walk across the room. Chances are your right foot and opposing left hand traveled forward together. Now step right and push forward with your right hand (same side), and then step left and push left. Left with left. This is how you move during tai chi and if you switch back to opposing movements your brain will register a change and send a signal that something isn’t correct.
Weight shifts – Grab a door knob. Chances are your weight fell on the front foot at the point that you grabbed the knob. Now keep your weight back as you grab the knob. Chances are that you were quieter, and that your hand sent back a tactile message from the knob –it’s cold, it’s hard. Because your hand’s nerve endings weren’t employed to balance or hold your weight, it was open to observe more. Poor or opposing weight shifts can stop your body from sending back messages during the form.
The tai chi form and movements teach us how to be highly perceptive by giving us a small window of time where our balance and attention are highly attuned. Your body likes this experience and if you listen to it, you will increasingly sense when something is not to your liking or has changed. To me it occurs in the gut and is the proverbial “hunch.” As you acquaint yourself with this feeling, acknowledge that something is wrong and act on it, the gut feeling grows and becomes more pronounced.
Oh, you get so many hunches
That you don’t know ever quite
If the right hunch is a wrong hunch!
Then the wrong hunch might be right!Dr. Seuss: Hunches in Bunches
An example of a hunch.
I often go to a great Greek restaurant and one day I was on the other side of town and stopped at a second location. When I opened the door I mildly smelled cleaning solution and my gut dropped and I felt anxious. I blew it off thinking “I am already here, I am hungry, I only have 20 minutes to eat.” I didn’t make it back to work and you can guess which small room of my house I spent the afternoon in.
I can’t out-rightly convince you through text that this is empirically true. However, I think this is one of the greatest benefits of tai chi that the form has taught me. In my life if I am more perceptive, bad things happen less and there always seem to be consequences for ignoring them. And there is some science to back this up.
The Science Behind the Hunch.
90% of the human brain is said to be run by the subconscious mind while 10% is accredited to the knowing mind. This makes complete sense and we wouldn’t want it any other way. Otherwise, we would be overrun but the processes that run the body and having to actually think about everything that our senses are taking in.
The hunch is actually listening to this 90%. It is giving an audience to your library of experiences and all of your sensory activity. Normally we only listen when the signal is ratcheted up (pain/danger) but we can access it more intimately.1
The physiology of the hunch.
What is it that we are tuning in to? When there is a change in our environment that may require immediate action or body changes our 1) rate of blood flow, 2) breathing, and 3) or endocrine system re-employs chemicals away from autonomic processes (digestion) and into awaiting muscles (limbs).
The hunch is physical and we feel better for paying attention.
The hunch is physical. Think about the millions of metaphors used to capture this sense (sense, get it?). “I had a gut feeling about that.” “That breaks my heart.” You sweat. You hold your breath. And yet, we conceptualize the hunch as being mental. It is not mental. The mental process is the reaction to the physical change. This is what tai chi is trying to attune us to and how tai chi influences our lives outside of the classroom. If you listen to it, you “feel” better regardless of the outcome.
Top 2 Benefits of Tai Chi Take Two: Adaptation
In the perennial question: “Why study tai chi? There are a host of obvious answers such as fitness, health, community, interest, or culture. But the truth is that any number of sports or hobbies can deliver on these promises. Some are even better. Here is one idea where tai chi truly stands out:
“Our ability to adapt is amazing. Our ability to change isn’t quite as spectacular.”Lisa Lutz
Tai chi is a systematic rewiring of your movements and breathing. You breathe and move just fine last time you checked, right? Movements are based on habit and responding to stimuli. At its extreme; an alarm goes off, you jump, and your pulse quickens. More commonly; the email you dread arrives, you clench your teeth, hunch your shoulders, and slump in your chair. Or, your son takes his first step, your spine straightens, you smile and gasp.
We react to what is presented to us.
Without focusing on how our body, mind, and emotions respond to a stimuli we are left with letting our body choose. In negative situations this will result in heightened stress and negative emotion.
But wouldn’t it be better if we could insert a thought before we react? Especially in the case of depression? Maybe even give us a choice as to how we react? Definitely, but our autonomic and emotional system rarely give us that option. What we can do is replace the reaction that our body chooses with a much more adaptive response.
Adaptive Change takes less time than you think
Tai chi is not a quick fix but rewiring old patterns does not take a lifetime. Research on learning music (The Talent Code, Effortless Mastery) and Kinesiology (Alexander Technique) all indicate that 4-6 weeks of slow movement practice can reprogram fine and gross activities and physiological responses.
How Does Tai Chi Change Our Response to Stressors?
Tai chi provides series of slow repetitive movements where you are observing your surroundings and concentrating on your breath. Your “reaction” to a stimuli includes 1) concentration on relaxed muscles and 2) an elongated breath. Therefore, when a stressor occurs your first inclination is relax the shoulders and breath into the belly. A far cry from the tensing impulse that is typical. Instead, learning the tai chi form is a way to reprogram your reaction to stress.
Example from Tai Chi
Someone 1) pushes on you, 2) your body tenses, 3) you think “crap, I am supposed to be relaxed.” You relax your shoulders and breath deep. The body’s reaction always precedes the thought. However, after hundreds of simulated pushes your body accepts this immediate relaxation as the normal first response to a stressor.
Example from Life
I hate leaving an essay in an esoteric cloud so I will also share a real life examples of adaptation. In my work I am often brought problems which I am asked my opinion on or asked to solve. I would traditionally “respond” to an issue with incredulity (on a good day) or outrage (on a bad). My emotion was obvious and my opinion or ideas hastily shared.
After incorporating these benefits of tai chi into my job, an amazing thing began to happen. I sat there. Just for a split second. I sat there uncommitted to an opinion or emotion. This created a large enough space in the conversation to allow my colleagues to offer a solution. They honestly know more about the situation than me and their opinion is probably more valuable. My colleagues still come with the problem but now they bring solutions. They say, “here is the problem, we can do this or that.”
Resources: 1. In Battle, Hunches Prove to Be Valuable