Tai chi is often thought of as a moving meditation performed standing and walking, but you can do it sitting, too. By meditation, I mean focusing attention on a specific point and/or activity with single-minded concentration. You’ll be “active” in either case as a result of your brain’s “mental activity.” This is a form of mindfulness practice.
A practitioner can easily sit quietly and “practice” tai chi form by visualizing moving through the postures and transitions. Well, maybe it’s not easy for a beginning practitioner, but it is kind of fun. Plus, it’s good for the brain and probably helps to improve memory, or activate areas of the brain that affect our ability to remember things during the learning process (cerebral cortex and sub-cortical parts, such as basal ganglia).
As far as the brain is concerned, the results would be much the same as if you were standing and doing the moves. For a long time, studies have continually recorded evidence that the brain registers the mental imagery same as it does the action itself (example article).
Tai chi and qigong movement are known to improve many physical and mental functions. For example, your bones, joints, ligaments and tendons benefit from their regenerative movement and relaxation. Balance and injurious falls in the elderly have been the most commonly researched topics full of positive findings, although that’s changing fast. Research is spanning out into brain, cardiac, body mechanics, and several other fields of study.
Another common benefit is improved blood circulation which delivers more oxygen and nutrients to the body’s cells. Just by breathing deliberately in specific ways, such as abdominal breathing, whole-body breathing or reverse breathing, you can activate energizing results. This is much like mindfulness breathing encountered in Buddhist meditation practice. In the case of tai chi, you’re standing and moving.
Could you produce these effects merely by sitting and visualizing them? Why can’t I produce better circulation if I can imagine it? I’m not a researcher in the formal sense, but I’ve gained insights from direct experience. My body and mental attitude have changed after years of consistent, regular practice of employing conscious use of “mind intention” to move—intending a movement before actually performing it. This is a key to advanced tai chi practice. It’s calms me down, too, in response to the hectic world and its resulting stress levels in the body. Anyone and everyone already practices mind intention at a subconscious level, since it’s a very human ability; but how many of actually deliberately practice it?
Simply visualizing doing tai chi form in your mind’s eye as if you were literally moving through the postures and transitions with your whole body is a practice of mind intention. The more you do it the more powerful results it can produce. A couple come to mind.
Improved memorization of movement and better overall memory function in the brain. Tai chi beginners have to memorize the sequence of postures and transitions of form, mostly from rote practice. But most are not going to stop what they’re doing and practice form, or find a specific time and place to practice during the day.
So, I recommend to learners to “practice” tai chi visualization, wherever they may be (office, driving, cashier line, waiting for movie to start, bored state, lying down to sleep). Take a few moments to run through each move of the form in their mind’s eye. So when they do stand up and move through the sequence they’ll guess less, hesitate less, and their movement will be more connected and graceful—not to mention the health benefits they’ll be cultivating.
Another pretty obvious benefit is that this kind of mental practice can enhance the brain’s memory functions. Your ability to remember anything is enhanced, which is great for overall mental well-being and overall brain function. I’ve even found it useful to visualize the parts of the brain in order to intend better function, such as memory. Check out the work of Richard Davidson (investigatinghealthyminds.org) and Clifford Saron’s research on the science of contemplation (http://mindbrain.ucdavis.edu/).
Maybe, just maybe, we can improve memory function by tapping into some unknown potential hidden somewhere in our bodies and brains. And maybe the practice of tai chi and mind intention can help to shake loose that potential from its moorings and bring it to where we can harness its power for better well-being overall.
Paul Tim Richard studies, teaches and writes about tai chi. His school’s mission is to make tai chi and qigong accessible and affordable to more people everywhere.