Most of us today do not fight battles in an actual war zone. I do not in any way intend to diminish the horrors of war, but I do think it fair to use the word “battle” as a metaphor for the realities of our daily lives. We fight social battles: poverty, human trafficking, for example; and we fight personal battles like addiction, depression, and toxic influences in personal and professional relationships. And one battle that does not allude any of us: stress.
Long, long ago in a land far away (i.e., in China more than 2500 years ago), warriors were trained to defeat opponents with their bare hands. And every battle strategy began with a “Super Hero” kind of belief: warriors were trained to utilize a power that lie in wait at the very core of their existence. Literally. To do this, warriors trained mentally at least as much as they trained physically. What if we could do this today? On some level, I suspect many of us believe that we also have a special power that lies in the core of our being.
Imagine a tiger preparing to pounce on an unsuspecting prey. First of all, the prey is unaware because of the tiger’s keen sense of smell and its swift, silent, and unnoticed movement. The tiger lowers its center of gravity and moves gracefully toward its prey. The tiger considers the position of itself in comparison to the position of its pray and when all the stars are aligned in the tiger’s favor, she leaps through the air with such speed and ease that the prey is unable to escape.
Apply this analogy to whatever battle you are fighting and you have the essence of Tai Chi. Tai Chi gives us this instinctive balance of mental and physical power. Imagine yourself facing the target of your battle: mind and body so fully connected, you possess an undivided unit of strength and agility, and you are untouched by the spew of assaults that come with stress or any other issues that plague you.
Tai Chi is a low-impact exercise that involves slow and gentle movements. Breath initiates movement and movement is empowered by breath. Mental concentration is focused on body and breath so that in this process, the power appears effortless, but the result is a strengthening of the mind and body in a state of calmness and control.
Tai Chi has many physical and mental benefits, one of the biggest being the improvement of physical balance. Because the movements are slow and deliberate and coordinated with breath, balance is essential. If your balance is not so good at the beginning, however, don’t worry! You will not fall over. It just means that as you practice, your balance will improve significantly and this will show up in other areas of life. In fact, physical balance is reflected in mental balance and this is at the core of how Tai Chi brings peace of mind and calmness in our stressful lives.
Traditional Chinese medicinal philosophies believe that the human body is comprised of the same five elements of the earth: metal, fire, wood, earth, and water, and that the life energy we all possess flows through the body along meridians. This life force, or life energy is called “Chi”. Tai Chi is designed to promote balance in the flow of life’s energy through our physical bodies.
In addition to increased balance, practitioners of Tai Chi claim that one of the biggest benefits they gain from their Tai Chi work is increased energy. Just look around and it is clear that we all need more energy! It seems that everywhere I look I see sagging faces and slumped bodies standing in line at the grocery or cruising along the highways. We usually reach out for another cup of coffee or some other quick fix, but with Tai Chi, we get energy that is well-balanced with mental ease. Of course, with a peaceful mind and better skills at battling the stresses in our lives, we end up with residual benefits like more flexibility in both body and mind, clarity of mind, lowered blood pressure, stronger bones and muscles, and an overall increased sense of wellness.
It seems that inner peace and calm are direct contradictories to self-defense. At least, in our modern, Western ideologies, we do not put inner peace together with defense. But let’s go back to that image of the tiger in that moment just before attack: we can see her concentrated focus and tremendous calm there together, complimenting each other to make her a skilled hunter. There is no doubt as to her strength in self-defense; it is the agility and calm that makes her at once graceful and powerful. It is this seamless oneness of grace and defense that we could all use more of in our daily battles in this over-busy life we have collectively created. This is the essence of Tai Chi practice.