Nosey, Noisy Muscles and Training Your Brain

Tai Chi Chuan ward off right, showing hands

In our daily lives, most of us, even those who consider themselves relatively relaxed and stress-free, are holding a lot of muscle tension in our bodies, and corresponding tension in thoughts and feelings.

As psychologists and scientists have been exploring for well over 100 years, there is activity in the brain–feelings, worries, and so on–that cause us to create that muscle tension. And we are not even aware of the majority of that tension, since it is habitual.

Tai Chi Chuan practice is one way to gradually release that tension. By focusing on full brain / mind / body integration and action, we start to cut through our own seemingly endless loops of thought and feeling, loops that create stress and loss of simple enjoyment in our selves.

I like to call the Yang-style Short Form a framework for self-development. The reason we repeat the “same” thing over an over is that each time we do so, we are learning something new.

The Tai Chi Chuan form is never the same, even for the same person who carries it out twice in a row. Each time we practice the form, we are actively creating our experience as we move slowly and with awareness from moment to moment.

What does that mean in practical terms? How do we do this?

Ying - Yang symbolOne key is to understand and use the Yin-Yang polarity. As human beings we can never function in total release nor in total action. Life is a moment-by-moment flow between letting go and engagement, on a background that is neither one of those. That is our reality!

While practicing Tai Chi Chuan, we are connecting to and embodying that reality. And when that happens, our brain / mind / body starts to feel both more awake, and more free of stress. In pre-action moves we release into the ground and sink energy into the feet and below into the Eart. In the subsequent action move, the energy expands from toes to fingers, filling our whole brain / mind / body with warm feelings and energy. The flow between release/letting go and action/engagement helps our nervous system function better, circulation improve, and has other positive effects as well.

This scientific article points out positive, measurable brain effectiveness changes due to Tai Chi Chuan practice. It is dense reading, but the conclusions point to less “noise” when we activate functions, and more consistent integration of the parts of the brain that need to be integrated.

Grandmaster Chen coined the term “nosey muscles”, referring to the unwanted activation of muscles that get in the way of simple, enjoyable movement. It turns out, we can also call them “noisy muscles”… that is, muscle and thought activations resulting from noise in the brain that interferes with clean, effective, enjoyable functioning in the moment.

Nosey, noisy: the key is to realize our brain can and should activate our body functions in a more integrated and less stressed manner.

Practicing the form day after day and year after year helps build a new set of circuits and a new set of resulting perceptions and experiences that allow us to accomplish more with less stress and more enjoyment. And that is a good thing, right?

Why Tai Chi Chuan is a Great Martial Art Practice

Tai Chi Chuan practice among trees and plants, solo

Many people come to practice Tai Chi Chuan for good reasons: the most common reasons are better balance, “relaxation”, and maintaining or improving health.

These are all valid reasons!

However, there can be a tendency to forget that Tai Chi Chuan is a martial art; it is actually an excellent fighting art.

I want to share WHY it is important to remember that Tai Chi Chuan is a martial art, even if you never intend to use it for that purpose.

When practicing the Short Form, it is not enough to go through the movements, and memorize them, without understanding the principles that are the basis of these movements.

Because of my experience, in my teaching of Tai Chi Chuan I focus on the dynamic energy and feeling that is the basis of high-quality Tai Chi Chuan. This means integrating the energy and feeling of brain, toes, and fingers while we are moving.

When brain, toes, and fingers can communicate, energy can expand freely, resulting in power without tension, and softness without weakness.

In summary, the results of practicing with the right understanding are:

  • increased speed and power
  • improved balance
  • better health, and
  • a sense of peace and well-being

It is worth noting that if you do want to try using Tai Chi Chuan for sparring or competition, it is also necessary to actually practice Sanshou (boxing) as well as Push Hands. In that way, the foundation of connection and energy flow can be channeled successfully into the mindset of confidence under pressure, and into the responsive movements that are required for the more rapid-fire engagement of martial art practice.

The Real Meaning of Relaxation for Health, Well-Being, and Martial Arts

Tai Chi Chuan hands

People pursue Tai Chi Chuan practice for a variety of reasons: health, fall prevention / balance, well-being, improvement in martial arts and other sports, and for relaxation / de-stressing.

I can make the case that to deeply relax and de-stress is the most central experience in Tai Chi Chuan practice that explains all the other benefits. However, the word “relax” can be misleading. We all want to be able to relax, but what does that really mean and what does it require?

When I feel stressed, if I lie down on the beach—or lie in bed for that matter—am I relaxing? Well, yes and no. We are indeed avoiding excessive stimulation and giving our awareness a chance to let go of a demanding daily life. That can have some benefits, but the benefits are limited!

Once we go back to a busy daily life and to the demands of relationships and society, the experience of stress is likely to resume where we left off.

The benefit of Tai Chi Chuan practice is that we are actively training our brain / body how to  stay calm and happy more consistently despite any daily stressors. When practiced with the right approach, Tai Chi Chuan involves intentional letting go and then energizing, repeated over and over in a fluid, rhythmic pattern. As a result, our brain can stay connected with a deeply relaxed and open experience to a wide variety of daily experiences, including those that many people feel are boring or stressful.

The benefits I have experienced, and have seen others experience, from Tai Chi Chuan practice include: a positive state of mind; the ability to let go of stress while being energetic and active; and excellent health into ages of 60s, 70s, and beyond.

There are many “right approaches” to Tai Chi Chuan study and practice, including variations on the form positions, but what they all have in common is learning how to release at a deep level, and how to engage our whole brain and body when we decide to energize.

It is the looking inside with brain and body during practice that allows us to train for a happier, more vibrant state of mind along with increased empathy for self and others. The brain functions with more energy, while the busy thinking mind lets go of excessive and repetitive worries. Muscle and mental tensions also release in this process, leading to a feeling of well-being as well as improvements in health.

In short, when there is less worry and tension, there is more opportunity for all kinds of positive states of mind and body.

So, coming back to the word “relax”: in Tai Chi practice we can enter a state of deep, peaceful focus. The awareness expands and is alert, while the body is fluid and comfortable. We are no longer locked into the physical perimeter of our being, but feel more connected to other people as well as to the surrounding environment. This experience goes well beyond the usual meaning of the word “relax”!

The shifts that occur with Tai Chi practice happen gradually, for most people, but can usually be felt at least a bit, soon after starting to practice. Tai Chi Chuan practice is beneficial at each step of the way, because it is constantly teaching us more awareness of self and others.

How to start? The most effective way to learn this practice is to participate in classes with a skilled teacher, along with practicing on your own to reinforce the learning experience. If you would like to discuss this, I can be reached at (718) 229-2609. And if you are not in the NYC / Long Island area, I can help locate a group practice that may be accessible for you.

I hope you will explore the ways you can stay healthy and feel more well-being. Tai Chi Chuan can be an important part of living that fulfilling life.

11 Ways Tai Chi Can Benefit Your Health

Tai Chi Chuan practice above ocean
  • Reduces stress
  • Improves mood
  • Better sleep
  • Weight loss
  • Improves cognition
  • Improves balance
  • Fibromyalgia
  • COPD
  • Parkinson’s
  • Heart disease
  • Arthritis
  • Takeaway

What is tai chi?

Tai chi is a form of exercise that began as a Chinese tradition. It’s based in martial arts, and involves slow movements and deep breaths. Tai chi has many physical and emotional benefits. Some of the benefits of tai chi include decreased anxiety and depression and improvements in cognition. It may also help you manage symptoms of some chronic diseases, such as fibromyalgia or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Read on to learn more about the benefits and risks of tai chi, and how you can begin practicing this exercise.

1. Reduces stress

One of the main benefits of tai chi is its ability to reduce stress and anxiety, though most evidence is anecdotal.

In 2018, one study compared the effects of tai chi on stress-related anxiety to traditional exercise. The study included 50 participants. The researchers found that tai chi provided the same benefits for managing stress-related anxiety as exercise. Because tai chi also includes meditation and focused breathing, the researchers noted that tai chi may be superior to other forms of exercise for reducing stress and anxiety. However… Read the full article

Tai Chi Chuan optimizes the functional organization of the intrinsic human brain architecture in older adults

Brain and functional homogeneity, research article

Whether Tai Chi Chuan (TCC) can influence the intrinsic functional architecture of the human brain remains unclear. To examine TCC-associated changes in functional connectomes, resting-state functional magnetic resonance images were acquired from 40 older individuals including 22 experienced TCC practitioners (experts) and 18 demographically matched TCC-naïve healthy controls, and their local functional homogeneities across the cortical mantle were compared.

Compared to the controls, the TCC experts had significantly greater and more experience-dependent functional homogeneity in the right post-central gyrus (PosCG) and less functional homogeneity in the left anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the right dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex. Increased functional homogeneity in the PosCG was correlated with TCC experience. Intriguingly, decreases in functional homogeneity (improved functional specialization) in the left ACC and increases in functional homogeneity (improved functional integration) in the right PosCG both predicted performance gains on attention network behavior tests.

These findings provide evidence for the functional plasticity of the brain’s intrinsic architecture toward optimizing locally functional organization, with great implications for understanding the effects of TCC on cognition, behavior and health in aging population… Read full article

Slow motion of Tai Chi Chuan—William C. C. Chen

Spleen 21 meridian schematic

June 12, 2018

The awareness center of brain is located on the top of the back head in Chinese medical chart named“Baihui” (百會- the hundred gatherings, which is a place to receive information and processing.) and the western’s indication is an “Antenna”. Raising the alertness in the brain from spinal cord without muscle tension (虛靈頂勁) in the movements is elevating the feeling of Yi to animate the Qi in the fingers and toes into a desire action. At same time, it raises the oxygen and blood in the brain cells to keep them healthy and to perfect their functioning.

These are the objective of martial artists to have the ability of quick central nervous system reactions. Their punches and kicks are undertaken directly by the brain awareness. When this awareness awakens, action is delivered by the remote nervous system components of fingers and toes. Synchronizing the awareness of the brain, fingers and toes is the central purpose of this Tai Chi Chuan   practice.

The slow-motion of Tai Chi Chuan practice is like Bluetooth, pairing the connection of the fingers and the toes with the control center of the nervous system. Once it’s paired, the practitioner’s brain, fingers and toes work as an inseparable unit: any emotion and intention in the conscious brain is instantly transmitted into the physical action of the fingers and toes without any delay. This is of extreme importance for martial artists when they are engaged in fighting.

The quick transmission of a neuro-reflex into physical action is essential for the martial artist, with the implication that he or she can deliver the punches and kicks within a split second. It is like the specialized ability of the courtroom stenographer; whose fingers type as people speak. This neural and physical connection is a necessary function of all human beings, which enables them to accomplish our daily activities more effectively and quickly, whether we work at home or have a job in an office.

In today’s rapidly changing world, left hemisphere brain functioning is no longer enough. Today’s invention is tomorrow’s history, and by the day after tomorrow, it’s ancient history. The work of future Tai Chi Chuan players will require creative and intuitive thinking as well as physical action. Any successful individual can and must learn how to use a fully functional brain integrated with the power of emotional and physical cooperation.

For the past 60’s of my teaching, learning and sharing this slow motion of the movements, I began with body mechanics principles, then moved into bio-mechanics and now I am involved with neurophysiology. The connections of the three elements of brain, fingers and toes are crucial to our daily activities. It is like the computer that requires the software of human a brilliant mind to enhance the system. The system must be updated monthly, weekly even daily. The bus is not going to stop here, the learning and perfecting is never ending, which is similar to our computer’s software being updated every so often.

These unhurried and relaxed movements help to regulate the nervous system, lubricate the joints and eliminate stiff muscle contractions. They facilitate full cooperation with brain function, circumventing physical interference from the muscles. This enables our fingers and toes to reach the highest level in the work of art.

For health, the soft movements of the practice ease body tension, promote the flow of vital energy Qi and replaces muscle rigidity with flexibility and excellent body coordination. They boost one’s mental tranquility, improve physical fitness, increase blood circulation to its full capacity, and provide the tissues of the various organs with the maximum amount of oxygen.

These silent meditative movements of Tai Chi Chuan is an art of Tao 道 which incorporates the brain workout, setting up a solid state communication between the neurons in the brain and the distant limbs of the fingers and toes. On top of this, an elevated oxygenate-blood flow in the brain cells helps to keep this utmost important central organ alive, like new. It is an essential to the martial artists, as well as the greatest contributions to the well-being of humanity. (寧靜的太極拳動作帶給人類最佳的貢獻).

An evidence map of the effect of Tai Chi on health outcomes

Tai Chi Chuan practice outcomes

National Institutes of Health / July 27, 2016

Tai Chi, also known as T’ai chi ch’uan or Taijiquan, developed as an ancient Chinese martial art and is today widely practiced for its health benefits. Many forms of Tai Chi exist, but in western culture, it is most commonly taught as a series of slow, gentle, low-impact movements that integrate the breath, mind, and physical activity to achieve greater awareness and a sense of inner peace and well-being. The meditative movement is designed to strengthen and stretch the body, improve the flow of blood and other fluids, improve balance, proprioception, and awareness of how the body moves through space; and it may be practiced in a group format or alone [1]. Results from the 2007 National Health Interview Survey—a survey of a representative sample of adults in the USA—estimated that approximately 2.3 million adults in the USA practiced Tai Chi in the past 12 months. There is no official licensure granted by national or state professional boards, and there are no official standards for training instructors; thus, individual training programs vary.

Research on effects of Tai Chi on health outcomes continues to expand and has been the subject of many primary research studies and reviews of the literature. The research field covers a wide spectrum of clinical indications, targets a range of populations, and has focused on a variety of settings. A systematic review of systematic reviews identified 35 reviews published in 2010 and concluded that Tai Chi is effective for fall prevention and improving psychological health and was associated with general health benefits for older people [2]. However, the interest in Tai Chi has increased in particular in recent years and since 2010, more than twice as many systematic reviews have been published. In order to provide a broad overview of the research evidence that has been published to date, we conducted a systematic review of systematic reviews of the effects of Tai Chi on health outcomes [3]… Read full article

Read more

Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan—William C.C. Chen

William C.C. Chen demonstrating push hands technique

The Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan Form is unlike other forms. It is a series of slow, continuous and even flowing movements that can be practiced by people of all ages.

Imagine how happy you would feel if each new day brought you plenty of energy for all of life’s duties and responsibilities.

Do you have sufficient energy to accomplish all you want to accomplish?

If you could become the creative person you always wanted to be?

Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan can help you experience the changes you seek. Daily Tai Chi practice can transform a ready supply of energy. Our bodies are made up of food and water, a delicate balance of the five elements. Regular practice can become powerful and practical mechanism to increase your inner reserves of energy.

We can show you how a 15 to 30 minutes of low impact exercise daily can mean an improvement in joint mobility and muscle flexibility; and improvement in the circulation of lymphatic and venous fluids; better assimilation of nutrients and the elimination of toxins; a reduction of stress; and a better overall flow of energy through the entire body.

Tai Chi for stress reduction, better focus and concentration, increased flexibility, improved strength, enhanced immune system, balance, improved memory, improved circulation and coordination.

Movement & breathing may help the following conditions. Always check with your health care professional: Arthritis, Allergies, Osteoporosis, Hypertension, Anxiety, Fatigue, Depression, Back Pain, Post Surgery Recovery, Muscle Tension and Spasm, Poor Circulation, Stroke Recovery, Asthma, Stress Reduction.

Tai Chi and Heart Disease—Roni Caryn Rabin, NY Times

Tai Chi Chuan and reducing heart disease

Although the number of Tai Chi trials is limited, several have shown that Tai Chi Chuan can reduce certain cardiovascular risk factors, including reducing levels of total cholesterol and triglycerides, increasing levels of “good” HDL cholesterol and slowing heart rate.

There is also quite a bit of evidence to suggest the practice can improve blood pressure. Harvard doctors who conducted a systematic review of the medical literature in 2008 found that 22 of 26 studies reported reductions in blood pressure among participants who practiced Tai Chi.

One 1996 trial that randomly assigned 126 heart attack survivors to either a Tai Chi, an aerobic exercise or a non-exercise support group for eight weeks found improvements in both diastolic and systolic blood pressure (the top and bottom numbers) only in the Tai Chi group. Participants were also more likely to stick with the Tai Chi program over time… Read full article

A Downside to Tai Chi? None That I See—Jane E. Brody, NY Times

Graphic for Tai Chi Chuan kick

The graceful, dancelike progression of meditative poses called “Tai Chi Chuan” originated in ancient China as a martial art, but the exercise is best known in modern times as a route to reduced stress and enhanced health. After reviewing existing scientific evidence for its potential health benefits, I’ve concluded that the proper question to ask yourself may not be why you should practice tai chi, but why not.

It is a low-impact activity suitable for people of all ages and most states of health, even those who “hate” exercise or have long been sedentary. It is a gentle, calming exercise — some call it meditation in motion — that involves deep breathing but no sweat or breathlessness.

It places minimal stress on joints and muscles and thus is far less likely than other forms of exercise to cause muscle soreness or injury. It requires no special equipment or clothing and can be practiced almost anywhere at any time, alone or with others… Read full article