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Tai Chi as a Path to Embodied Mindfulness

Tai Chi is commonly known as a restorative exercise to enhance health by maintaining flexibility and strength or as an internal martial art where the focus is on cultivating tai chi principles and exploring skills during partner practice. To me, the most rewarding aspects of practising tai chi come from being encouraged to deepen into mindfulness and learning how to interact with other people in a grounded way. Both of these elements enable the experience of being in a state of flow. Tai chi is a moving meditation and inherently an expression of mindfulness. We require mindful awareness to develop the ability to move in accordance with tai chi principles, in a balanced, calm and coordinated manner. As we approach our practice with mindfulness we become better attuned to the present moment and can more readily develop a relaxed, connected and responsive way of organising movement. A beneficial effect of the practice is that we get to experience pleasurable feelings of being in the zone. This motivates us to keep practising, thus supporting mind-body integration. Interestingly, deepening into mindfulness and becoming more embodied also helps with remaining in the zone over longer periods during our day to day life activities and interactions.

In 1994, I had the great fortune to meet gifted tai chi teacher Wee Kee Jin and to start learning the Huang Sheng Shyan system of tai chi. In this system, the essence is found in the tai chi form, which is the set of movements developed as a means to train the body to move in a harmonious and synchronized way. Eventually, every movement contains the tai chi principles and the form becomes formless. Loosening exercises support the tai chi form and partner practice offers opportunities to explore skills with others. Practising with peers is an extension of the form where we work towards remaining balanced and grounded as external relaxed forces are affecting us. It consists of sensing exercises which are explored in a safe and conducive laboratory-like environment. The intention is to cultivate the art of yielding to and neutralizing incoming forces.

Playing tai chi with a partner can be seen as a type of interpersonal mindfulness practice. We support each other in growing embodied presence and relational intelligence. Training is collaborative and in the spirit of camaraderie. Sensing exercises are practised in slow motion in order to learn to move with another person while maintaining our central equilibrium. Whenever we get into a situation when we feel like we are losing our balance we are encouraged to notice what is happening in the body and respond mindfully rather than react mindlessly. Tai chi sensing exercises give us an opportunity to bring attention to what it feels like to let go of unnecessary contracting and disconnecting. Somatic awareness grows with time and practice. Through training in an embodied way, we develop the ability to be more responsive and learn to maintain our centre effortlessly. A natural process takes place which leads to becoming more integrated and finding greater ease and flow as we deepen into the practice. An extra bonus is the light-hearted and fun learning environment tai chi offers.

When facilitated by a qualified instructor the Huang system of tai chi is particularly powerful in supporting mind-body integration. Loosening exercises and form practice help us with improving alignment, increasing relaxation and grounding, and enhancing the ability to connect and synchronise the body. Partner work functions as a mirror and reflects where we need to fine-tune skills in our individual training. It is invaluable to make progress in tai chi as we need feedback to assist us in developing a deeper presence and for building resilience. Explored mindfully and co-operatively peer practice offers an effective method to engage in somatic experiencing. To ensure we work within our window of tolerance, it is important to remain aware and curious about what is happening in the whole body from moment to moment and to apply self-regulation tools when required. As mind-body integration improves our nervous system functions more optimally and we are able to respond with mindfulness rather than react automatically to what is happening in our inner and outer environment. With time and practice mindfulness grows, we become stronger and more skilled in managing energy and maintaining the ability to flow. Of course, getting to this level in tai chi is only possible when assisted by an experienced teacher.

During my initial years of training, I was mainly focused on Qi Gong meditation and solo form practice. Physical and mental health benefits were noticeable after sessions and motivated me to make time to train regularly. Since my teens, I have had challenges with health issues. Chronic pain was a regular companion and gradually impinging more and more on daily life. Tai chi was invaluable in finding better posture and in becoming more relaxed and has had positive effects in reducing pain severity and duration. The emotional body however needed further attention and methods to help, particularly with reigning in the discursive mind.

In the mid-1990’s I was introduced to formal sitting meditation practice and soon after started attending silent retreats. I enrolled in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training, became interested in compassion-based communication approaches and learned effective skills which helped me grow both personally and professionally. Mindfulness and compassion-focused interventions began to influence my understanding and approach to tai chi. It opened me up to a deeper level of realization that the training process is one of unlearning and letting go of what is in the way of remaining in a place of balance and state of flow.

A memorable and outstanding light bulb experience at the time was hearing about ‘Neuroplasticity’, the brains’ ability to re-organize itself through forming new neural connections throughout life. It confirmed to me the importance of practising tai chi with mindful awareness to be able to unlearn unhelpful habits of moving my body. I realized these habits were reflected in self-limiting behavioural patterns which got me stuck and I was also happy to let go of, gradually.

To support my practice I found myself gravitating onto the path of Insight Meditation and started with regular sitting meditation. In 2000 I found an inspiring mentor in Sharda Rogell from Spirit Rock Meditation Center who comes to teach in New Zealand every year. Sharda was key in keeping me on track and encouraged me to embody mindfulness more fully. Many other wisdom teachers, both from NZ and around the world, practice companions and spiritual friends have also greatly contributed to deepen my understanding and to assist me in progressing on the path. It has been an incredible journey to come home to the body and see peers do the same.

In writing this article it is my wish it may contribute to revealing tai chi’s mindfulness potential more fully, so that anyone who may be interested, whether with or without a physical limitation or a wandering mind may tap into it and enjoy its manifold benefits.

Lucy Schwabe