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Taiji As A Way to Improve Physical and Mental Health

1/07/2014



This is a paper I wrote as an assignment for my Taiji class (which I took purely for fun) during my senior year of college. I remember that as I was writing this paper I felt I was just pulling a bunch of BS from my head, but after rereading it I've realized that a lot of parts seem quite insightful. I'd like to try incorporate some of these concepts into my everyday life and yoga practice. Perhaps I will even begin practicing Taiji again. 

Learning Taiji this quarter has been very useful for me.  Unlike other forms of exercise and martial arts, Taiji focuses using one’s brain and internal system.  As a result, Taiji can be used to help improve both mental and physical health, due both to its spiritual and martial arts components. 
There are two main styles of martial arts, external style and internal style.  External style focuses on the body’s external ability such as muscle strength, stamina, and flexibility.  It uses fast movements and centers around overpowering the enemy. Internal style, on the other hand, uses soft and slower motions, focuses on posture, and flexibility, and centers around using the opponent’s energy against him or her when used in a fighting setting. 

Taiji is considered an internal style of martial art. One thing this internal style does is help to strengthen the internal organs and circulatory system. It also helps to improve focus of the mind and intellect and teaches one to apply the principles of yin and yang even in the smallest movements.  For internal style it seems that most of the energy for the movements come from inside a person.  Thus, in order for Taiji to be performed correctly, the right mind-set must be used.  

Because external and internal styles are so different, it seems difficult to compare them to each other, making a decision as to which one would be better for one’s health.  External styles may be more cardiovascular, exercise-based activities than internal styles are, but this does not necessarily make them better. The big difference between the two styles seems to be the fact that Taiji focuses more on the mental aspect.  Due to this, Taiji can be very beneficial to one’s spiritual and mental health as opposed to just physical.   Per this example, internal styles are able to transcend other styles due to their ability to improve many different parts of the self. 

I feel that Taiji is good for both my physical and mental health. Overall, Taiji is good for one’s health because it helps to increase one’s general feelings of well-being.  Whenever I think of exercise I immediately think of doing something cardio based or that will increase my physical strength such as weight lifting.  Although Taiji does neither of these I have found that it makes me feel like I have increased my measure of healthfulness.  Physically it helps me to increase my inner strength and focus on things such as aligning my body.  It also helps me gain greater balance and teaches me how to use my center or dantien.  One example is the horse stance.  At the beginning of the quarter, when I first started using the horse stance, it was somewhat difficult for me to hold it for long periods of time.  Even though I consider myself to be in pretty good shape, it required using muscles that I wasn’t used to using.  Also, I was focusing more on using my thighs to hold me up rather than also utilizing the energy of my body pushing into the floor and coming back up through my body while also focusing on the alignment of my spine going towards the ground.  It is a basic lesson that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Horse stance is a perfect example of how one can utilize their own energy and force for their own benefit rather than it being a barrier.  Now that I have learned and fully comprehend this, I feel much more comfortable in the horse stance and understand why it is one of the fundamentals for learning Taiji.  I feel that Taiji is different from most forms of exercise because it utilizes the mind in order to control and condition one’s muscles.  

Even though Taiji’s movements are very slow, it still helps to increase one’s energy and agility. In Taiji, each posture flows into one another making sure the body is in constant movement.  Because of this, even though it is slow, different muscles are constantly being trained and used.  In this manner, Taiji almost reminds me of a dance, since I have a strong dance background.  Like in a dance style such as ballet, one must learn all of the fundamentals before becoming more advanced.  We learned this by practicing all of the stances.  If one cannot do the stances properly then it is impossible to do Taiji properly, which is why we must train our bodies slowly before jumping in to Taiji.  Once we have mastered all of the stances we were able to put them together to start doing Taiji. After this we can start to focus on coordinating our breathing with the steps and even tinier aspects, such as using one part of the body to initiate a movement a different one.  Despite the fact that we are constantly moving, all of the basics are still present.  Because the movements are slow but constant, Taiji allows one to feel energized without feeling worn out.  When I come to class in the morning I am usually still in the process of fully waking up.  At the end of class, however, I feel energized and able to embrace the day.  The Taiji movements help my body to limber up and I leave feeling pumped up. A contrast with this is when I go to the gym.  After a hard and long workout session I do feel lifted, but I believe that is mostly due to an influx of endorphins that my body is receiving.  A few hours later I tend to feel worn out and the need to be lazy.  In this way, Taiji’s slow movements but constant movements can improve one’s health by increasing energy and agility. 

Another important aspect of Taiji that I believe improves health is its focus on controlling one’s breathing.  Breathing plays several important roles in Taiji.  First off it can help to reduce one’s stress level and reduce anxiety.  Oftentimes I come into class into the mornings feeling stressed and preoccupied over other classes and work.  After I begin focusing on my breathing rather than what I am stressed about, my troubles seem to fade away.  Breathing techniques I use at the same time as doing Taiji, help to control the movements and create a steady rhythm.  When inhaling during the inwards movements and exhaling during the outwards movements it causes the motions to meld into one. Taiji’s emphasis on controlled breathing is a skill that can be used in everyday life.  Lately, whenever I feel tense and need to calm myself very quickly I practice controlled breathing and I feel better almost immediately.  Personally, I have used breathing to help me lower my blood pressure.  Whenever I get my blood pressure checked at the doctor’s office it tends to be high because I am nervous.   The last time I was at the doctor’s office I used the breathing exercises in order to calm myself down beforehand and my blood pressure reading came out normal.  Additionally, Taiji, when used with correct breathing, can help to relax the body and internal organs.  Deep breathing increases blood flow throughout the body thus making one feel more energized.  Thus training one’s breathing for Taiji can also help one’s health in everyday life. 

Taiji is important for one’s mental health because it teaches you to be able to train and control your mind.  In order to perform Taiji correctly one has to be in the right state of mind.  It is very important for one to be able to focus on their internal energy and use this energy outwardly.  I have noticed that it is very difficult for me to practice Taiji if I am not in the right mindset.  For example, sometimes in the early mornings I would find myself slightly distracted and starting to think about something else.  When this happened, I realized that it was a lot more difficult to remember all of the movements or execute them directly.  Also, when I am practicing Taiji outside of class I become nervous and distracted if I know someone is watching me.  If I am worried about what others might be thinking then it is almost impossible for me to concentrate and perform the movements correctly. However, over the course of this quarter I have found that I am able to redirect my thoughts and place myself in the right mindset when I feel it shifting. This training of the mind is not only applicable to practicing Taiji, but can also be used in many various settings during everyday life. 

Taiji is also important for mental health because it helps you to use your imagination.  A very clear example of how this is true is with the use of the Taiji ball and bowl.  With breathing, we have been taught to imagine that there is an inflatable ball in our dantien, where all the body’s energy is stored.  During breathing I imagine that I am holding a yoga ball.  When I inhale, my dantien fills up with air. When I exhale, my dantien deflates and releases air into my yoga ball, thus causing it to inflate.  This also makes my hands stretch out so I can still hold the growing ball.  Another way that Taiji has helped me to use my imagination more is by acting like energy is a tactile object.  For example, when I am pushing against the air during Taiji I try to imagine that there is an equal energy pushing back against me.  Now, sometimes I can physically feel the energy that I am using and that I am pushing against during all of my movements.  This invisible but tactile energy helps me to put strength behind my movements even though the movements themselves appear slow and soft.  Imagination is also used to help remember the placement of the moves themselves.  For example, for the move “high pat on horse” I remember the placement for my right hand like I am petting a horse’s nose and the placement for my left hand like I am feeding the horse a carrot.  As far as everyday life goes, training of the imagination is useful because it can help one to be more creative and open-minded.  

I do think that the martial arts component factor of Taiji is important.   Even if there was no correlation between the Taiji movements and a street fight, knowing the martial arts aspect is still a very useful thing to know. Taiji teaches to not use hardness when facing violent force; instead it teaches to redirect the force, thus meeting yang with yin.   When applied to normal life, this concept is very useful.  Essentially, this is another way of saying that one should not use fire to fight fire.  Obviously this concept would be useful for fighting, but also has it’s own place in day-to-day life.  For example, if one is in an argument with a friend usually yelling back at them only elevates the problem instead of helping to solve it.  Instead we can use what they are upset about and redirect it in order to solve the problem.  This concept can also help us reduce our stress levels by teaching us in order to stay calm.  When a problem arises, oftentimes our first instinct is to immediately start worrying and overreact.  Using the martial art factor we can learn to not go with our first instinct and instead remain calm to overcome the problem.  In this way, even though the martial art component is not being applied in a literal fighting sense, it does play a part in maintaining good health. 

Coming into the class, I had few expectations and had very limited knowledge of Taiji.  Over the course of this quarter I have learned that it is much more than just a martial art. Its external and internal disciplines of both the martial and art components of Taiji can be very beneficial to one’s overall mental, physical, and spiritual health.  The end result is a greater feeling of harmony between the body and spirit.

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