Tai Chi is a martial art, but in the past hundred or so years, the image of Tai Chi has become linked to the concept of "moving meditation," geared toward adults and seniors who want a relaxed way to exercise and improve their health, balance, flexibility, etc.
Those of us who see Tai Chi as a vigorous, athletic martial art are sometimes at odds with those who preach the art as something that will make you "One with the Universe" or will help you "cultivate chi."
I am a chi skeptic. I do not think chi is a scientific reality. After all these centuries, after scientific discoveries that include atoms and quarks and relativity, no one has ever been able to prove that chi is real.
But recently, interviews I have done for my Internal Fighting Arts podcast, and studying I have done on Mindfulness, made me realize there is a happy medium where focusing on the proper body mechanics when performing a Tai Chi form -- the body mechanics that make it martial -- can be combined with Mindfulness to produce the benefits of meditation.
A few months ago, I had a negative encounter with someone (I no longer remember who it was or what the disagreement was about) and I was troubled and had an unsettled feeling all morning. I drove to practice with some students, my mind scattered by the negative emotions of the disagreement.
When I began practicing, I focused on my movements and my teaching, and was mentally present the entire 90-minute practice. I gave no thought to outside events. I was mindful and immersed in my internal arts.
After practice was over, I was walking to the car and realized how good I felt, how clear my mind was, and it dawned on me how much more unsettled and stressed I felt before I focused my mind and let the other thoughts go.
Dr. Mark Muesse teaches Mindfulness and was a guest on my podcast a few weeks ago (listen to or download the Mindfulness episode here). Mindfulness is a form of meditation where you put your mind completely on what you are doing, and in doing so -- in being mindful -- your mind and body experience the health benefits of meditation.
A lack of mindfulness causes a lot of distress, whether it is a feeling your spouse gets when you just don't seem to be paying attention, or if you are constantly sending and receiving messages on your cell phone or computer, or if you are in a meeting at work, allowing your mind to wander rather than focusing on what is being said. All of these things and more scatter your energy and produce stress.
By focusing the mind and being here now, in the moment, time goes faster and you gain clarity. Stress levels drop, your anxiety and stress ease, and your body is more calm. Your health improves. Clinical studies have confirmed this.
Dr. Muesse and some Tai Chi instructors I have talked with agree that the best way to use Tai Chi for meditation could simply be a matter of focusing your mind as you do your form. If you practice as I do, working on martial body mechanics as you do your form, that will be just as beneficial as focusing on "cultivating chi" from a meditation perspective as long as I am in the moment, concentrating on my movement, without a dozen other thoughts going through my mind.
And so it makes logical sense that if you practice Tai Chi to "cultivate chi," and you focus your mind on that and practice mindfully, it will also have health benefits that you may attribute (inaccurately) to chi, when in fact it is the psychological and physical benefit of Mindfulness.
Try it the next time you practice any martial art. Calm your mind and try to "be here now." Don't worry about what you are having for dinner tonight, what bills need to be paid, what deadlines you have at work, or what tension there may be in some of your relationships.
Simply pay attention to what you are doing, without judging, and if you find your mind wandering, don't be critical of yourself, simply steer it back to focus on what you are doing. At the end of your practice, you might feel mentally refreshed and relaxed, and what can be healthier than that?