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26 September 2007

Cultivating positivity

How with a little extra effort, one may restore balance and harmony to their lives

By Stephanie Fowler

In a modern world where rewards are granted for extra effort and hard work, we can often be excused for thinking we need to put 110 per cent effort into what we do. We take the mind and body to the extreme – believing we must always go beyond our limits to push the boundaries and excel.

But the downside is clear – our mind and body can only go so far before the cracks start to appear in the form of stress, high-blood pressure, insomnia, anxiety, and other emotional and physical problems which will eventually decrease work efficiency and negatively impact our lives in a number of other ways.

So isn’t it important that we learn to relax and bring some balance to bear in our lives? To give ourselves the option to turn up the heat when we need to, but also be able to turn it down again when it’s unnecessary, or damaging to our health.

Tai Chi Chuan has been the focus of a host of studies that have verified its efficacy in reducing stress and improving health. In the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) view of the body, mental or physical tension in the body causes the blood and ‘qi’ (or ‘energy’) to stagnate, leading to physical damage. By smoothing out the qi and blood flow, not only can we prevent physical illness, we can also normalise our thought processes – leading to clarity of mind and strength of body.

Central to this is learning the most basic principle of Tai Chi Chuan practise – and one that can be the most difficult for many to grasp – which is called Song in Chinese, or relaxation/softness. In Tai Chi Chuan training, we believe that the will or intention leads the energy, with actions or strength following – so it is crucial to learn how to relax and focus the mind first, since from this will follow all else.

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In Western physiology, when we relax, we turn down the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the ‘flight-or-fight’ actions or stress-related effects in the body, and give the parasympathetic nervous system a chance to kick into action, giving the body a chance to regenerate and rebuild its resources.

By relaxing the mind and the body, and coordinating our breath with our actions, the qi channels or meridians open, and both blood and qi flow are enhanced. If you imagine a qi channel as being like a pipe, you will realise that both need a good source of energy and a free path. For if there is excessive tension in the ‘pipe’, then the pipe will be squeezed and inhibit flow.

So by learning to relax and gently opening the body out, as is taught in Tai Chi Chuan, the qi channels are opened. By coordinating the mind’s intention, with the breath and body’s actions in a relaxed and natural way, the body’s energy and physical strength are cultivated– which can be used both for health enhancement as well as self-defence.

This applies to all ages and states of fitness, making it just as suitable for the young over-worked executive needing to de-stress as for a frail older person needing to gently build up the body’s resources.