What does spirituality mean in tai chi and in everyday life? The word has been used in popular literature to mean many things. To many, spiritual means living with our inner selves instead of living for the external things in our lives. People who are spiritual are comfortable with who they are and are not motivated by the external. Spiritual does not mean believing in a higher being outside of themselves. That's religion. Spiritual people may be religious. Religious people may be spiritual. However, the words do not mean the same thing.
Spirituality (inner self) is important to maintaining health and well being. Long-term experience of any kind manifests itself in our bodies. For example, if we are feeling a lot of external stress, our shoulders become hunched over because we "store" stress there. Wherever tension is held in our bodies, we develop blockages to qi flow. If we habitually stand with locked knee joints, we develop blockages and stagnant qi that manifest as foot, leg, hip, or back pain.
What does any of this have to do with tai chi? Tai chi can help us learn to see and understand the internal aspects of ourselves. Sun Lu-Tang, creator of Sun style tai chi, claimed that the highest level of tai chi is when the practitioner merges with the Dao and is in harmony with nature. Jing (精) describes how the tai chi mind quiets down and ignores the mental chatter that normally bombards us. Jing means to be focused and aware of your self and our surroundings.
My friend, Caroline Demoise, wrote a book, Tai Chi as Spiritual Practice. In it she says,
"Slow movement calms your mind and leads you on a path inward to experience the stillness at the center of your being. The energy of tai chi is innately meditative and produces this inner alignment. The underlying principles teach you to harmonize with Tao and flow with change."
Slow movements help the mind to focus when taking deep breaths and help to sink the qi to the dan tian. It can take time to develop a quiet mind. With practice, the forms become second nature and the mind begins to lead the body and mental quietness develops. With each successive practice, it takes less time to return to a quiet mind. Mental quietness calms the mental chatter. It helps us cope with stress and crisis.
Breathing is another important part of tai chi. Slow deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system to calm down the body and mind. This can also help with stagnant qi. Stagnant qi can feel like a heaviness or slowness in the body. Abdominal breathing can be used during the forms practice to help with developing calmness and focus. Speed can be controlled by using one inhale for each opening movement and one exhale for each closing movement.
Long-term practice of tai chi promotes the flow of qi. The movements loosen the joints, muscles, and tendons. In fact, one of the fundamental principles of tai chi is song (松), which means relax and loosen. When practicing tai chi with song in mind, the joints open up and the qi flow improves. Further tension in the muscles can be relaxed by being aware of substantial and insubstantial in our weight shifts. In addition, song can refer to relaxing and loosening the mind.
Learning tai chi requires the interaction of the mind and body in ways that cannot be done with Western exercise systems. The meditative aspects achieved through jing help maintain calm when the chaos of everyday life constantly surrounds us. The relaxation from song helps relax the mind to help us focus in our inner selves. Long-term practice teaches us to integrate mind, body, and spirit so we can calm down and live from our inner focus. When you use your mind actively to focus on and enhance your body movements, you build a strong mind/body connection. Your energy follows your intention. This is tai chi.
© 2012 Eric Borreson
This was previously published in a modified form in Yang-Sheng magazine.