breathe deep, train hard
Research into how and why Taijiquan is such a brilliant health modality is limited, although it is an ongoing area of interest. In my view it will remain challenging to fully understand due to the reductionist method of scientific enquiry set against the entirely holistic nature of Taijiquan.
Perhaps the almost unique ability of Taijiquan to confer health benefits is, at least in part, due to its simultaneous use of two great, and usually mutually exclusive, health tonics. Namely demanding exercise, and deep diaphragmatic breathing.
It is widely know and accepted that exercise is good for health. What is less well known is that the simple act of deep, slow, diaphragmatic breathing has equally profound health benefits. This has been shown over the last 40 years by professor Herbert Benson MD of Harvard Medical School.
Usually these two are not seen together, because as we exercise our natural tendency is to move towards shorter, shallower breaths. Taijiquan is different. The exercise is demanding, generating a lot of heat and sweat, but the breathing is maintained at a slow and steady pace. When this is then coupled with the stretching, postural alignment, and progressive relaxation of the musculature of Taijiquan, the potential for synergistic benefits seems immense.
Taijiquan has been consistently shown by scientific studies to lower blood pressure, and the deep controlled breathing of Taijiquan will also lower the heart rate. This means less wear and tear on blood vessels, and in the long term can reduce the risk of stroke and cerebral aneurysm.
Deep and long breaths also encourage full oxygen exchange.
Lung capacity is increased, which is considered a good indicator of life expectancy.
Deep breathing techniques and progressive muscle relaxation, two of the key elements of Taijiquan, have been shown to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system that is responsible for repairing and maintaining homeostasis in the body. This has been shown to give marked increases in immune function and improved T-cell activity.
Taijiquan has been shown to have positive effects on global cognitive and memory function. It can help to maintain a healthy brain, and has also been shown to have benefits beyond those of western forms of exercise.
This may be in part because of the mentally challenging nature of learning Taijiquan. Practitioners are cognitively engaged in learning the movements, and once the external choreography is learned, the mind is constantly engaged in refining and increasing the efficiency of movement.
The cutting edge reseach field of epigenetics looks at how our genes can actually change the way they function if triggered correctly, and guess what... deep breathing has been shown to do this.
Research at Harvard University has shown deep breathing practice can alter the expression of genes relating to energy metabolism, insulin secretion, and immune function.
Visceral fat is the type of body fat that is stored around the internal organs and is the primary constituent of abdominal fat deposits. It has been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.
Visceral fat has also been linked to stress and cortosol levels. So if you want to get get healthier and burn off some of the abdominal fat, stress reduction and exercise are two key elements. And guess what Taijiquan offers...
Taijiquan and deep breathing have been shown to reduce inflammation through stimulation of the vagus nerve, the nerve that controls the parasympathetic nervous system.
Chronic inflammation is starting to be recognised as one of the main factors in many serious illnesses including cancer and autoimmune diseases, as well as being a driver for aging.