Tai chi and resilience 

A tai chi practice might not prevent certain illness,
but it could make you more resilient if you do get sick.

On February 1, my younger brother suffered sudden cardiac arrest and passed away. It stunned everyone who knew him. No one was aware of any outward sign of the condition of his health.

Coincidently, my heart began to fail two years ago just this month. On March 6 a cardiologist inserted a stent in the left descending artery of my heart, which was 95% blocked with plaque. They call this large artery the “widowmaker” due to sudden deaths commonly associated with it. 

My brother died of what might have happened to me if I had not being practicing tai chi. I used to think that tai chi could, or would, prevent these kinds of afflictions if you practiced enough. I’ve learned differently, but I think my tai chi practice did make my body more sensitive to changes and more resilient, allowing me to rebound back to health more readily.

A tai chi practice might achieve certain quality of life goals, such as improved circulation, better balance, even better memory. The list is long. This in turn would help you prevent illness, presumably. Maybe I never really believed, in the back of mind, it could prevent cancer, stroke or heart attack. But so many promotions of tai chi seem to suggest that. Ironically, my teacher once said that if you do qigong enough you wouldn’t die of stroke. “Might die of cancer, but not stroke,” he said.

In my case, something had being going wrong for a few weeks. I was shoveling snow when a burning sensation in my chest forced me to stop shoveling. For two weeks I felt the pain off and on until I was able to take a stress test, which is to walk on a treadmill at an increasing pace for at least 10 minutes. I was unable to. I was shunted into surgery three days later for stent insertion, a procedure they call an angioplasty.

Cardiologists now tell me I have coronary artery disease, or CAD. Twenty years of fairly intensive tai chi practice didn’t prevent it. Even before the so-called “event,” I had seen tai chi masters die rather young. Long before I entered into the tai chi world I assumed that “Chinese masters” lived very long lives because they lived wisely and practiced diligently. But once I had been practicing and meeting the “masters,” I found that many live only as long as average people. One of my early teachers died before age 80 of what I heard was stomach cancer. Another died of a brain tumor. He was not much older than I.

Whatever skills and knowledge we acquire through diligent practice from exceptional teachers, we ultimately do not overcome the conditions of our environments. Polluted air and water, and whatever environmentally unsound features we live in.

Lifestyle probably made me vulnerable to heart failure. Like not brushing your teeth when you are young leads to bad teeth and gums later in life, failing to follow the guidelines of good eating and exercise earlier in life can easily lead to compromised health in older years.

Cardiologists tell me that my body produces cholesterol excessively, which contributes to CAD. It’s genetic, they say. Of course, a tai chi advocate would resist that conclusion. Anything is possible, right? Nevertheless, my body inherited an ability to over-produce bad cholesterol from my father. The evidence was when he suffered a heart attack at age 53 and died at age 67, the same age my heart started to fail. The same age my brother died suddenly.

Environment, lifestyle, genetics—my body became more resilient because I did tai chi. After the angioplasty, I went through the rehab program in a third of the time of most patients. Rehab has included medication, aerobic exercise (for me, hiking/walking/bicycling) and diet modifications. I continue tai chi and qigong practice, of course. It’s different now. I guess I will be in rehab for the rest of my life, which they tell me is shortened because of CAD. Maybe they are incorrect.

I credit my teachers with giving me information to help improve my health. One teacher focuses on martial training and the other more on health. They have lacked some insight into the deeper needs of my particular body, which is understandable. No one can know everything. Both, however, have exposed students to the internal energetic components of taijiquan, information vitally important to me in helping to build strength and resilience. I have focused heavily on internal energy awareness (life force) in the teaching I have done.

I learned enough from them and my own efforts to prevent a full heart attack. I was quite ill when I began my practice 23 years ago and I improved greatly. My skills grew and I began to feel stronger and more optimistic. Most importantly, I clearly built up a resiliency and a sensitivity that gave me the awareness to see that a problem was building. I was able to change course before it was too late. I credit that to taking action to learn tai chi.

I recently told a friend going through similar issues that anyone in the midst of rebounding from illness, such as heart failure, should resist inertia. Be flexible and changeable. It’s simple enough. The first thing is to move. Don’t just sit around. The second is to move in a different manner than you are accustomed to. Tai chi accomplishes this. Third, move from a different place. Go deeper. Move from your innermost being and from your deepest awareness. It will make you more resilient and possibly save your life.


The beginner always, curated

Perpetual learner, deliberate practice, repetition without repetition, intellectual humility, openness to new ways of learning. … They don’t mention taijiquan, but in fits the bill in this BBC article.

“How a ‘beginners mindset’ can help you learn anything”


Why do Tai Chi and Qigong?

Beyond the immediate physical benefits that you can experience in just one or two one-hour practices, you can find all sorts of reasons for doing tai chi and qigong, probably one for every person who practices regularly. If you do both tai chi and qigong regularly you’ll find out, if you haven’t already, that they can enhance other things in life that you really enjoy doing, such as skiing, hiking, bicycling, hauling the kids to soccer practice, gardening, riding horses, swimming, meditating … . Why? You learn how to use your body and energy in ways that enhance most everything else you do in life.

I’ve practice regularly over time for health and well-being; to simply feel better and hopefully live a longer, more-fulfilling life. I also learn martial applications, which is a whole other level of immersion. Compared to other exercise regimes, tai chi and qigong can be moderate, but you can also get more of a workout than you might expect.

In fact, any of the Chinese internal martial arts can be quite invigorating, whether you do them moderately or intensively. For one thing, you can incorporate power stretching, fitting it into some part of a training day once you are warmed up. Power stretching from the Lan Shou Quan system (a southern Shaolin style) produces a lot of deep muscle toning. You can focus on bones, joints, ligaments, and tendons, as well as cultivating a sharper awareness of your energetic elements. You learn how to relax in order to power stretch at different levels of your physical and energetic…all the while developing power and generating energy.

Both tai chi and qigong contain concepts not emphasized in other exercises, such as aerobics, weight lifting, running, playing competitive sports, and so on. For example, since tai chi and qigong are mind and body exercises, you use your natural perceptual abilities to either reteach your body to do things the regime asks of you, or you want to do. Or you can discover things you didn’t know you could do.

They are healing therapies, too. The moves are performed mindfully—which can be very different from pedaling an exercise bike at the gym, while listening to your iPod, or maybe reading a magazine, or watching news on television while you “workout.” However, if you like doing these things, tai chi could help get more out of them… whatever it is you’re seeking to achieve. Endurance, improved blood circulation, muscle toning, digestion, better posture and balance, injury healing, reduction in chronic symptoms of aging. The list is long.

Eventually, you cultivate mindful, meditative, thoughtful attention to subtle energies in your total being and get the fullest benefits of tai chi and qigong. I guess the only way to know what this means is to learn a little and practice. Take a class or a private lesson. Even though beginners feel a difference the very first time they do tai chi with a good teacher, it takes time to grasp some of the concepts and principles underlying the moves and postures. I developed the Fundamentals of Taijiquan course to systematically build and show others what I’ve learned from my experience with my teachers. It’s not a fast track but it’s organized so that one session’s learning builds on previous lessons and opens you up for future training.

Doing taijiquan and qigong is a process of discovery. Discovery is at the core of the moves and postures . . . self-discovery of one’s mind, body, and spirit. Tai chi and qigong are growing in popularity and you can find opportunities to learn almost anywhere. Many students challenge themselves by taking weekend workshops. You could call it a “workout workshop.” You learn endurance, patience, and more about yourself: your body and your ability to focus mentally and physically. If you’re interested in learning more, you can find a number of resources on the Web. In my experience it’s best to find a good teacher and learn through live action, face-to-face practice. Once you gain some familiarity and comfort, you can get more out of such tools as videos and books. You could be wasting money otherwise. I believe in-person training has more value in the beginning.

Look for an upcoming post soon in which I delineate some of the differences and similarities of tai chi and qigong. If you’re contemplating trying either, the more you know beforehand the better. It’s all about becoming familiar with some aspects of either in order to become comfortable with the exercises. Once familiar and comfortable, you can refine and improve. Each time you stand in position to begin a practice session is, even if only for a minute or two, a fresh opportunity to learn something new and build on what you have already experienced. This is one of the most exciting things about tai chi and qigong.

As I wrote before, there is probably a unique reason for doing tai chi and qigong for every one practicing now. Find out what yours is by giving it a try.

What is the difference between tai chi and qigong?

In many aspects they incorporate the same components, particularly how you use energy (Qi/Chi) to move and how you focus your mind on specific tasks or movements. They differ in their intentions. Tai chi is originally a martial art, or a fighting art, but it incorporates qigong. Qigong, of which there are hundreds if not thousands of different kinds, are medicinal in focus, not martial.

Their origins might even be somewhat linked. One legend says that a Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma, an early disciple of Buddha himself, taught exercises to Chinese Buddhists, because their bodies were giving out before they reached enlightenment. That began what grew into Shaolin schools of “Kungfu.” The Eight Pieces of Brocade Qigong set are postures originating from that time. I teach them to all beginners that come to me to learn. They’re easy to do, but can produce profound results over time. I know a Parkinson’s patient, John, who does two sets of Eight Pieces three times a day and walks 20 minutes. It has made a huge difference in reducing his balance issues, his speech and his attitude. He is more self-reliant despite his condition, which takes a load of worry and energy from his wife.



ARTICLE: The Link Between Stress And Heart Disease May Lie In The Brain

This article is in Forbes magazine, written by Alice Walton. Findings in a study reported on in the Lancet link the brain to stress and heart disease, with inflammation in the arteries as a major symptom. Duh…I suspect as much when I suffered from migraines as a teenager. It’s taken 50 years for science to catch up, but I’m glad it’s coming round to greater grasp by researchers.

The article concludes that “Exercise, meditation, talk therapy and other methods have been shown to be effective.” Well, I suggest doing tai chi. Why? For one reason, for the busy A personalities among us, is Tai Chi is a meditation and exercise wrapped up into a single activity. How’s that for multi-tasking?

Here the Forbes article: