Zen and Tai Chi Chuan: How They Relate for Well-Being

Woman with sun in mind, in nature
Woman with sun in the mind, in nature

Zen and Tai Chi Chuan: How They Relate for Well-Being

Two areas of study and practice that I find very important for me are Tai Chi Chuan and Zen. For those with an interest in either topic, I will share what I have found is the connection between these two important practices.

Zen, a form of Buddhism, consists not only of mindfulness, but also has guidelines on ethics and behavior. The word “ethics” relates to honesty and reliability in relationships as shown in words and actions, and a livelihood that helps others or at least does not do harm. The word “behavior” relates to offering kindness, compassion, and patience to self and others.

On the other hand, in Tai Chi Chuan practice there are few teachers who will directly bring up those matters of ethics and behavior. Instead, there is much focus on mindfulness and movement.

So, mindfulness is central to Tai Chi Chuan practice, just as it is in Zen practice. But what about the parts missing in Tai Chi Chuan study and practice, that is, explicit considerations of ethics and behavior? After many decades practicing both Zen and Tai Chi Chuan, I can offer this observation: Tai Chi Chuan practice leads to a greater sensitivity of the whole person. That sensitivity is a sensitivity towards others and towards oneself.

Just to be clear, this is not the sensitivity that leads to a person feeling insulted or threatened due to negative actions of other people; it is the sensitivity that allows us to perceive directly the inherent importance of self and others. My own practice has required overcoming significant obstacles in my own mind. Gradually, with practice and attentiveness, and with wonderful teachers as well as the truths of the universe as a teacher, I learned the great lessons, and continue to learn.

We can only be fully helpful to others to the same extent that our awareness is clear and sensitive, moment by moment. Buddha said, in an overview of what Zen / Buddhism is devoted to, “Do as much good as possible, avoid doing harm, and purify your mind.”

The first two phrases are what we would expect from a religion or spiritual teaching, but the third phrase referring to purifying the mind is crucial as well. As the mind becomes more pure, sensitivity increases. This is not moralistic purity, but purity that expands perceptiveness and empathy by removing barriers to clear functioning of the mind.

Tai Chi Chuan with arms spread, in natureIn Tai Chi Chuan, practice increases sensitivity toward oneself. And by being sensitive to oneself there is a natural connection to sensitivity toward others. Because we are all connected, we cannot treat ourselves differently from others, in an absolute sense.

Sensitivity to others means we feel connection with others, which relates to empathy, kindness, compassion, and patience. On the other hand, if we with the best intention focus only on doing good actions without purifying the mind and developing sensitivity, we will miss many important opportunities to do good and we may unintentionally do harm.

Both Zen / Buddhism and Tai Chi Chuan involve turning the light of awareness inwards. When we turn the light of awareness inward, we purify the mind, and as a result our good intentions and our words and actions work together, to positive effect.

In Tai Chi Chuan, the introspective practice following a fixed external framework (the various forms) as well as various two-person practices, increase sensitivity to self and others. When we have sensitivity, we have empathy, kindness, compassion, and patience. With that mind, we will naturally follow the ethics and attitude that is spelled out more explicitly in Zen / Buddhism.

When we open our doors of perception to the profound and beautiful nature of each human being, Tai Chi Chuan and Zen take on their fullest, most important value. Friendliness, helpfulness, patience, and all other virtues of human nature arise from this purified mind, guided by our efforts.

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Brain, Toes, and Fingers: Clues About How They Connect

Baby holding feet, curling toes and fingers
Baby holding feet, curling fingers and toes

Brain, Toes, and Fingers: Clues About How They Connect

Highlights [bolding below is by editor here]

  • There are systematic but distinct patterns of confusion between fingers and toes.
  • Idiosyncrasies in patterns of tactile confusion are shared between fingers and toes.
  • Tactile confusions likely arise from high-level representations of the body.
  • Shared confusions may be a result of a common representation of fingers and toes.

Note by editor: important for us as Tai Chi Chuan practitioners is that there are innate connections between toes and fingers. The article is also studying pathology (“confusion”) between toes and fingers, but for us, the natural brain connection of toes and fingers is information that is more essential, and points to a fundamental of Tai Chi Chuan practice for most effective movement integrating brain and body.

Abstract

There are many similarities and differences between the human hands and feet. On a psychological level, there is some evidence from clinical disorders and studies of tactile localisation in healthy adults for deep functional connections between the hands and feet.

One form these connections may take is in common high-level mental representations of the hands and feet. Previous studies have shown that there are systematic, but distinct patterns of confusion found between both the fingers and toes. Further, there are clear individual differences between people in the exact patterns of mislocalisations.

Here, we investigated whether these idiosyncratic differences in tactile localisation are shared between the fingers and toes, which may indicate a shared high-level representation. We obtained confusion matrices showing the pattern of mislocalisation on the hairy skin surfaces of both the fingers and toes.

Using a decoding approach, we show that idiosyncratic differences in individuals’ pattern of confusions are shared across the fingers and toes, despite different overall patterns of confusions. These results suggest that there is a common representation of the fingers and toes.

Read more of the original article

Three Core Principles of Tai Chi Chuan, for an Endless Path of Growth

Practicing Tai Chi Chuan peacefully on the beach
Practicing Tai Chi Chuan peacefully on the beach

Three Core Principles of Tai Chi Chuan, for an Endless Path of Growth

When practicing Tai Chi Chuan, it can be important to step back at times and revisit: why am I practicing this? and what attitude or understanding will allow me to accomplish the purposes or goals for which I practice Tai Chi Chuan?

As an answer for these questions, I am going to outline three core principles of Tai Chi Chuan. I offer these after 45 years of Tai Chi Chuan practice and teaching, and other meditative and active practices followed for a similar length of time. These core principles, while based on my experience, gain the most value when you the reader can make them your reality (maybe you are already doing so!), rather than only reading the concepts.

The good news is that we arrive at the destination with each step on the path, meaning that even a beginner can create benefits for themselves as they start to concentrate on the essence of Tai Chi Chuan. In a sense, we are always at the beginning moment of our next journey.

So, here are fundamental principles that describe three essential aspects of Tai Chi Chuan practice:

  • Action originates in the brain, and expresses in the toes and fingers. Every other part of the body stays loose and free in order to fully support the brain’s determination as expressed in our toes’ connection to the Earth and our fingers’ extension through the air. The whole foot supports the action of the toes, and the whole hand supports the action of the fingers.

  • Fulfilling function of body / brain requires both a deep release, and an awake energizing. With only release, we cannot accomplish our goals and may experience depression. With only energizing, we cannot enjoy the goals we accomplish and may experience anxiety.

  • The language of the brain is fundamentally frictionless and spacious. When we drop the conflicting mind and its associated tensions, the language of the brain can be perceived by others and by oneself, and we can accomplish and enjoy more with less stress.

I will be writing more about each of these three principles, to clarify how they are part of everyday life for all of us.

With practice, we are on an endless path of growth. May we all share in and enjoy the benefits of this practice.

Research on Blood Pressure Benefits of Tai Chi Chuan

Twenty years ago, it was commonly understood that science had not seriously studied the benefits of Tai Chi Chuan, so reports of  its benefits were mostly anecdotal or personal opinions. Benefits for balance and prevention of falls were the earliest studies done, but that ignored other beneficial effects such as on mental state, cholesterol levels, sugar levels (related to diabetes), and blood pressure.

Research on Tai Chi Chuan however has expanded greatly. In this short article, I will describe some of the research on lowering of blood pressure and keeping it in a healthy range. There are numerous research articles concerning blood pressure in peer-reviewed journals and by prestigious organizations such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I will provide a few links at the end of this article for those who would like to read selected research.

I have mentioned in my Tai Chi Chuan classes that typical exercises described as cardiovascular exercise in this country are focused on raising the heart rate. There is even an ideal, target heart rate recommended by age. Although such activity can be helpful due to impact on bones and muscles, including the heart, they may not have as much influence as hoped for on other processes such as blood pressure and cholesterol.

The problem with the fast-heart strategy used as a blanket or universal approach is that for all but the youngest or healthiest individuals, there is significant risk that the heart is being forced to pump hard while working against the tension of a non-optimal circulatory system. This can put the heart at risk of strain. The circulatory system is indeed exactly that, a system: the heart, arteries, and veins all need to work together for true circulatory health.

There are muscles lining the walls of our arteries and veins, and those muscles are an important part of our circulation. Wherever there are muscles, there are also nerves, hormones, and other internal factors that control how well the muscles work. Strangely, many articles on circulation omit the active role of arteries and veins in helping blood circulate. However, Lumen Learning spells it out: “Blood primarily moves through the body by the rhythmic movement of smooth muscle in the vessel wall and by the action of the skeletal muscle as the body moves.”

The deep release and energy shifts of Tai Chi Chuan help circulation in a holistic, systemic way. One study shows Tai Chi Chuan practice as significantly more effective in lowering blood pressure and lowering bad cholesterol levels than aerobic exercises. Other articles show a similar effect of aerobics and Tai Chi Chuan practice. The studies do not attempt to ensure that the Tai Chi Chuan practice is done optimally, so perhaps with an experienced teacher even better results would be observed. Tai Chi Chuan practice over a longer period of time than in the research studies would also likely be beneficial.

Over the years, I have gained increasing awareness of and respect for our amazing human mind / body system. For overall health, holistic practices that improve the well-being of brain and body in an integrated manner are vital; such practices can lead to enduring mental and physical health benefits. The evidence continues to accumulate that Tai Chi Chuan is perfectly placed to contribute to practitioners’ mental and physical well-being.

Related links:

The Effect of Tai Chi Exercise on Blood Pressure: A Systematic Review

The beneficial effects of Tai Chi Chuan on blood pressure and lipid profile and anxiety status in a randomized controlled trial (abstract, NIH)

The Efficacy of Tai Chi and Qigong Exercises on Blood Pressure and Blood Levels of Nitric Oxide and Endothelin-1 in Patients with Essential Hypertension: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials (NIH)

Brain, toes, and fingers

Homunculus brain map, showing the relative size of body parts in the brain map of each person's body
Homunculus brain map, showing the size of the parts of the body as mapped in the adult human brain

Brain, Toes, and Fingers

When we practice the movements of the Tai Chi Chuan Short Form, we are always moving as human beings move. We are expressing our human physiology moment by moment and day by day. What changes moment to moment is the quality of our awareness of that reality.

Our mind decides to accomplish a goal, large or small, and tells the brain to initiate movement, to continue the movement, and ultimately to stop the movement. So what is different about our practice of any of the Tai Chi Chuan Forms as compared to other, everyday movements?

The primary differences are that 1) with the Form, our focus is turned inwards, and 2) there is no fixed goal compelling the movements, so the mind is free to “explore”.

In the Form, we are making the effort to move using energy rather than moving using muscles with the accompanying tension. This focus is possible because the movements are slow and are carried out attentively; and they are not done with a distracting goal in mind.

We have the chance, therefore, to focus on clearing up unwanted muscle and brain activations that do not contribute to our movements. We can start to feel our own openness and spontaneity, leading to softness, speed, and ultimately even to generosity and sensitivity to others!

There is immense impact for our brain and body that results from action taken without tension. When our willpower is focused on the moment, and the brain is enabling exactly the desired movement (or cessation of movement), excess thought and tension starts to clear away, and we can better receive the healthy energy from our innermost mind/body.

Since Tai Chi Chuan practice is based on movement of energy with full awareness and without tension, the question arises, “How can we practice and achieve that full awareness without tension?”

Here is one answer that I can offer:

Our brain naturally controls our feet and fingers. Specifically, for action we need the arch as a weight-bearing foundation and the ball of the foot and big toe (along with supporting toes) to connect to and use the ground for traction and propulsion during movement. At the same time, the fingers carry out our desired action in the air, using the support of the earth and our feet.

If somehow, through an accident or stroke, we were to lose either connection to the toes or to the fingers, our brain will inevitably start to re-wire in order to create similar points of focus and action. That is, the human brain is wired as a physically dual engine: support on the solid earth, and movement through the air.

The expansion of energy we need for effective movement can only occur when there is solid support in place from both the earth/ground and the feet that are encountering the ground. When that support is present, the fingers can expressively lead the body to follow along, accomplishing what the mind wants with its passion and determination.

A football quarterback, even when forced to move backwards, will expand against the ground in order to support throwing the football to a receiver. This is similar to the Form’s “Step Back and Repulse Monkey” movement.

Our health, physical capacity, and well-being all improve when we can release excessive mind tension-activity and instead experience the flow of feeling-energy in motion.

If you have been practicing Tai Chi Chuan for a while, and are in a centered stated of mind, if something near you starts to fall your hand will automatically reach out and catch it accurately in mid-air. On the other hand, if you are tense and “lost in thought”, that tension-free movement will not happen and the falling object may not be caught successfully.

By practicing the form slowly, turning the awareness inwards, we can start to re-connect the mind, toes, and fingers. When our proprioceptive nerve feedbback and our movements are free and connected, then our movement comes from and is experienced with our whole being, with the whole body connecting the grounding of the feet and the expansion into the fingers.

ACTION:
When practicing the form, be sure to soften the mind and body before each action, and let the toes and fingers release or soften somewhat, as part of the preparation for action. Then, when taking action, feel the energy expand into your inner arch and especially your ball-and-toe, and correspondingly into your fingers.

The activation of ball-and-toe and correspondingly the fingers is a gradual expansion of energy guided by the brain. The brain directs increasing energy into the ball-and-toes of the supporting foot, and into the fingers, carrying out the desired action of the mind/brain working together.

For effective and frictionless action, we only need to activate the toes and fingers, while the arch of the foot provides support; the rest of the body, as directed by the brain,  is relaxed while automatically expanding support for the two endpoints of toes and fingers, thus providing energy flow to accomplish the desired action to completion.

In a few words: Our mind/brain sets an intention and determination, and activates the support of the feet and the action of the fingers; the rest of the body is automatically adjusted to support those two endpoints.

Mind and Brain

Happy brain with "hands" up
Happy brain with "hands" up

Mind and Brain

For purposes of discussion, we will for now separate our mental function into two parts: the software or “mind,” and the hardware or “brain.”

Rather than being totally discrete from each other, they overlap and are closely connected, but we can speak of the mind as that aspect of ourselves which gives orders to the underlying brain, while the brain is that aspect which carries out the actions the mind requests, by controlling the movements of the body.

The mind is essential for living in this world. The mind tells us to eat when we are hungry but before we do so, to finish a meeting that we are in the middle of. The mind tells us to pay bills, and when to pay them; to send invoices to customers; and to prepare and file taxes, again on a certain schedule. The mind lets us choose and reserve hotels and transportation if we are preparing for travel. And so on.

The mind / brain connection also provides emotions to motivate and energize us in carrying out various activities.

Where the mind does NOT function well, and gets in the way, is when there are unseen messages playing over and over in an endless loop. These often intense and usually hidden messages may say, “I am no good so stay away”, or “I am great so give me respect”, or “No one will like me”, or “This pain will never change.” In body language, the message might be summarized as “Protect yourself, because you are weak” leading to muscle tension and various aches and pains.

All of these messages cause distress in the mind and body, even if we are not aware of the specific messages. Examples of the resulting sensations are anxiety or depression in the mind, and pain or excessive fatigue in the body.

Tai Chi Chuan helps the mind perceive, interrupt, and release these extra, unneeded and counter-productive mental processes so that the mind / brain connection works quickly and seamlessly, with more enjoyment and energy, and less stress and discomfort.

The process by which Tai Chi Chuan works to release unneeded mental activity is the introspective awareness that we practice, which is the reason that the Short Form is practiced slowly. The flowing movements and pulsing energy of the Short Form encourages introspection, like a moving meditation. As we gaze inside and observe ourselves, we start to heal internal divisions.

Turning the light of awareness onto the mists of our inner world helps evaporate the illusory thoughts that lead to tension and stress.

When the mind and brain work smoothly together, we can catch a falling object without even knowing how we do it. We can get through each day without painful tension and stress. And we can be more genuine with other people, and enjoy our connections with others more fully.

In a few words: turning awareness inwards to experience our own deeper processes helps the mind simplify its activity, and frees the brain and mind to collaborate and function more smoothly and energetically as one, in all aspects of life.

What Is Tai Chi Chuan?

Man practicing Tai Chi Chuan in nature
Man practicing Tai Chi Chuan in nature

What Is Tai Chi Chuan?

What is the essence of Tai Chi Chuan? Regarding the short form, which many have witnessed practiced in public spaces, people are engaged in what appears to be a repetitive exercise. But why repeat those movements, day by day, year after year?

There must be essential elements that are stimulated or uncovered through this concentrated practice, or millions of individuals would not be continuing this practice. I would like to share with you the important essence behind the practice of Tai Chi Chuan, and how that essence benefits mental and physical well-being and health.

In this and subsequent articles, I will discuss these essential elements with you, the reader, based on my lifetime practice of Tai Chi Chuan. And if you are already familiar with these essential elements, I hope to support and share understanding and insight, for mutual benefit.

At nearly 70 years old, I am healthy and active, don’t need medication, and am in a good, positive state of mind. I attribute that good overall state to practicing Tai Chi Chuan and meditation, and trying to incorporate their principles of nondualism into daily life. Of course, given the nature of life, that good health could change at any time, but for now, it is something for which I am grateful.

Starting at the beginning, what does the name “Tai Chi Chuan” mean? Two translations you may encounter are “Grand Ultimate Fist” and “Great Polarity Boxing.” The two translations are pointing to the same transcendent understanding. Of course, words are always pointers; it is up to our selves to explore and experience the important meanings of the words.

It is our human nature, to contain and live with both passive, or yin, and active, or yang. These are the seeming “utimates” or “polarities”. And when we see and express both clearly, we can understand a truth which is beyond those opposites. “Fist” and “boxing” refer to the efforts for insight, as well as the efforts for the wise action of martial arts. Insight and action cannot be separated except as a convenience for discussion.

For me, Tai Chi Chuan is study of how our mind and body harmonize at a deep level, which results in a more meaningful experience of the world. Our clear mind and flowing energy, developed through practice, are experienced as spaciousness and true freedom.

Tai Chi Chuan practice is a way to turn our human potential into reality. I find that Tai Chi Chuan practice helps mind and body be more grounded, helps release tensions that would otherwise accumulate, and fosters that sense of spaciousness and true freedom.

So, with a topic as important as experiencing your best self day by day, let’s discuss the nature of this practice. In following articles, we will also discuss more specific principles, and ultimately look at the details of brain and body connection and movement that make this practice meaningful and impactful in everyday life.

Because it supports expression of the “grand polarities” of letting go and engaging energetically, Tai Chi Chuan is a practice of both mind and body. Human nature cannot live with fulfillment with only the physical, nor for that matter with only the mental; insight and expression go hand-in-hand and cannot truly be separated.

Without a good practice of presence, such as meditation or Tai Chi Chuan, we are liable to become wrapped up in inner and outer stresses. If we live with excessive passive, or yin, we will experience disruptive sadness and lack of energy, and not be able to release those. If we live with excessive active, or yang, we will experience anxiety and tension, and not be able to release those.

Conversely, letting go of opposites, letting go of tension based in worry for the past or future, and instead living peacefully in the present, with the flowing changes moment to moment, is like taking the best imaginable vacation, where well-being takes over—and there are no hotel or flight reservations needed!

Tai Chi Chuan is a practice of moving freely between our passive and active, and thereby uncovering and enabling the nondualistic fundamental nature that we all have as human beings. That is good for health as well as mental well-being. Nondualism means a non-conflicting mind, and freedom to express fully and with empathy, in each moment.

As practitioners of Tai Chi Chuan, we are walking on a path to greater understanding and expression of our essence, the best of our capacity as human beings. I believe that path is a foundation for living in the best way, moment by moment.

When the mind and body are harmonized, our actions become helpful and authentically compassionate, while our mind is able to find peacefulness, with reduced inner and outer conflict, and with more energy available for important activities.

That is the essence of Tai Chi Chuan, if we want to understand and experience its value. Although at the beginning of practice these principles are not very clear, through our efforts we can unfold a growing awareness and experience of these important principles, express more meaning in our daily lives, and be more effective in accomplishing our important goals in life.

In a few wordsTai Chi Chuan practice is a way to turn our human potential into reality by enhancing focus and expansive awareness.

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

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.