Monday, January 31, 2011

Using Tai Chi to Strengthen Your Immune System (Part 2 of 2)

Stress is known to damage our bodies in many ways. It appears that one of those ways is a weakened immune system. According to WebMd, stress management could be the key that helps calm our bodies and strengthen our immune system. Tai chi is a well-known method of developing a mind-body connection that can invoke the relaxation response and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn reduces damage caused by stress.

Meditation has been shown to strengthen our immune systems. The mechanism is not entirely clear, but it seems like it is related to stress reduction. Dr. Herbert Benson studied the effect of meditation starting in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. He concluded that meditation relaxes our body and mind. He coined the term “relaxation response” to describe how our body responds to meditation and calms us after a stressful event.

Our nervous system has two parts. The sympathetic nervous system manages the stimulating activities related to the fight-or-flight response when we are under stress. The sympathetic nervous system keeps us alive when we are in danger. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the relaxing activities that calm us down. It is sometimes called the rest-and-digest response because it is responsible for the activities that happen when we are at rest.

Many tai chi teachers (myself included) incorporate meditation as part of the class. This happens for a couple of reasons. Meditation is good for your health by itself. In addition to that, learning tai chi is stressful for beginners. It is difficult to teach our body to move in the slow, precise ways used in tai chi. No one ever pays attention when I tell them to relax and not worry about it. If I put stress into their lives, I want to help them manage it properly.

Tai chi can also be used to directly invoke the relaxation response. The basic principles of tai chi say to breathe deeply, move slowly and continuously, focus on the movement, and imagine moving against a gentle resistance. This is too much for a beginning student to be able to do at first. However, it can happen once a student develops a basic level of knowledge of the tai chi forms.

Regular practice of the forms in a simple set can be used to practice the basic principles of tai chi. This is very helpful in helping the student develop the relaxation response. To the students, it may seem like they are “in the flow”, or “really focused”, or some similar feeling. In tai chi terms, it means they are starting to develop some inner strength and intention. In medical terms, they are developing a mind-body connection and invoking the relaxation response, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Be aware that this does not happen immediately as people are learning tai chi. It takes time and practice to develop the feeling.

In part 1 of this article we developed the idea that the movements of tai chi activate the lymphatic system. In this article, we developed the idea that tai chi can be used to invoke the relaxation response. The overall effect of regular tai chi practice is that we are healthier, both physically and mentally, and we just feel better.

© 2011 Eric Borreson