Staying Rooted: Insights on How to Handle Stress Using T’ai Chi

By Milton Huang, M. D.

Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Monday September 6, 2004

The world seems to get more hectic and complex every day. We are being bombarded by a multitude of different ideas, different cultures and different conflicts. New technologies change our jobs and our relationships with instant messages, instant demands and instant expectations. Everything seems to keep accelerating, moving increasingly faster.

These are the feelings that bring people to my door and keep me busy in my job as a psychiatrist. Everyone is stressed, even in “laid-back” Santa Cruz.

Part of my job is to help people find relief from that stress. Although some relief can be found through herbs, medications or other substances, I find that more lasting relief comes when people recognize patterns in themselves that contribute to their stress, then engage in a sustained effort to redirect those internal forces.

This is not easy, and is sometimes even stressful in itself, but it is a lot healthier and allows greater flexibility in the long run.

Understanding Stress

Stress is not a one-way street that the outside world uses to make deliveries to our door. It is a dynamic response to the conditions of our lives. When we feel stressed, we often make it worse by worrying about it, blaming ourselves for not being “good enough,” or simply tensing up and carrying the tension around in a defensive stance.

I have learned this not only through talking to my patients, but also through my own experience. Stress, and specifically anxiety, is a visceral body reaction. Few other emotions remind us so directly that mind and body are inseparably connected.

We feel our anxiety in our clenched guts and thumping hearts. We get physical aches and pains. Our hands get cold or sweaty. Yet, this connection between mind and body is generally automatic and unconscious.

When we are able to look at ourselves and perceive how these body reactions are tied to our feelings about our lives, one is struck by the fact that mind and body are not only connected, but connected in a way we often cannot control.

Anxiety reactions can seem to come out of nowhere or appear completely disproportionate to any rational assessment of the danger of a particular situation. Learning how to manage these reactions is difficult and sometimes counterintuitive. I find it a constant personal challenge, as well as a professional one.

The Mind-Body Connection

Although I have been trained in multiple therapeutic techniques and theories, I constantly look for ideas and approaches to better manage and resolve anxiety. In the last year-and-a-half, I have explored one such approach in t’ai chi ch’uan, or tai chi.

This ancient discipline can teach a broad range of self-awareness and self-connection skills that help a person understand and manage many physical and emotional issues.

So what is tai chi?

Those with a passing acquaintance immediately visualize a group of people moving in slow motion in a park in the early morning hours. My earlier impressions were primarily derived from such images, as well as various readings in Chinese philosophy.

Yet, tai chi is not simply beautiful, slow movement. It is a highly refined and sophisticated martial art and self-development discipline. My current understanding comes from regular training with a local teacher, Greg Brodsky.

A martial artist since 1960, Brodsky studied with two of the most renowned tai chi masters in the United States, Cheng M’an-Ching and William C.C. Chen.

Now in his 60s, Brodsky’s emphasis is on practical body mechanics with exquisite awareness and practical cultivation of energy through the body. He always employs a characteristic gentle and humorous style, emphasizing the mental and emotional aspects in every lesson.

Mind-Body Mechanics

One of these basic lessons is called “rooting.” In this part of tai chi, one seeks to develop a solid grounding of self to the earth, keeping your feet on the ground, your feelings open and your mind clear and focused.

Attention moves through the body from earth to foot to legs to center to hands. You begin to be aware of the constant relationship of how you physically support yourself, how different parts of your body are interconnected and how your efforts and intentions can hinder or enhance that support and connection.

You also become more aware of the natural flow of motion and energy through the body and how these flow through our connection to the world around us. The physical background for such lessons is practice of the form – a series of 60 movements that takes 10 to 15 minutes.

As I move through these steps, I maintain awareness from moment to moment of where I am and how I am moving. Such attention has shown me how unconscious tensions are always present in different places in my body.

Although being aware of how tense I am often makes me even more tense (since I know that I “need to relax”), the process of being immersed in the flow of tai chi helps reduce the tendency to make those judgments and self-criticisms.

Brodsky and his wife and co-teacher, Ching, work to create a training space where there are no “good” or “bad” moves, encouraging their students to just recognize their self-generated stress patterns and cultivate new ones.

These efforts have taught me that the main barriers to a comfortable inner state and competent tai chi practice are emotional. It is through learning your own emotional “root” and center that you can begin to recognize your own strengths and boundaries and feel a greater comfort in letting go and relaxing.

This in turn allows us to release the energy we waste in defensive stances and to better connect with everything around us.

This process creates an energized and dynamic relaxation that is not passive, but rather alive with a power that comes from our connection to the energy all around us. Although I am only a novice in learning these skills, I can understand what Greg means when he quotes his first teacher, Cheng M’an-Ching: “Stillness while in motion is true stillness.”

Push Hands

These lessons become even more clear in another part of tai chi that is not as widely known: Push Hands.

Push Hands practice extends the body awareness and connection developed in solo practice to a situation in which one interacts with another person.

In this exercise, two people face each other and, within safe boundaries, attempt to push each other off balance.

As in form practice, one strives to maintain a constant grounding and balance, as well as a smooth and natural flow – this time in coordination between two different individuals.

To be successful, one must pay close attention to their partner’s actions and intentions. You quickly learn that single-minded pursuit of the idea of pushing with aggressive force makes you vulnerable because your force can be used against you.

It is from knowing and blending with your partner’s moves that you can learn how to recognize and redirect them in a natural and flowing way.

Tai chi practitioners call this “listening.” I find that, with Push Hands as with the tai chi form, anxious emotions create the greatest barrier to progress.

I have become acutely aware of how I tense or overreact when I sense a push coming, thereby wasting energy or making myself more vulnerable.

I also see how I inhibit my own pushes and reflexively become passive, failing to push when I should. These are the same emotional reflexes that I always carry with me, whether I’m playing with my kids or working with a patient.

In the exercise of Push Hands, I have a dynamic arena where I can learn to recognize and change unconscious patterns of behavior – an essential part of growing to be a better father and therapist.

Less Stress

Personally, I have found my work in tai chi to be challenging, yet an important path that continues to provide me opportunities to grow emotionally.

The emotional self is always difficult to change, as it resists with a legion of deceptive devices. Obvious symptoms such as stress activate us and draw us into looking for immediate relief, sometimes leading us to miss the larger patterns of how we become trapped in our lives.

I always encourage people to look to the larger picture and not rely on the quick fixes that are becoming all too easily available in modern society.

The healthiest ways to reduce stress are the ones that last. Stress is often a sign that we are challenged by the task of uniting our physical, intellectual and emotional selves.

It is from discontinuities between these selves that we often create our personal lifelong traps that can repeatedly drain us.

Recognizing these traps and resolving these discontinuities form an ongoing, lifetime work that is essential for health and for living fully.

Each person is unique, with unique background, unique talents and a unique path to tread.

Some find assistance in such a task through spiritual practice. Others through psychotherapy or disciplines like tai chi.

If you seek new ways to find how to connect to your mind and body, you should consider finding a teacher or “sifu” and discover what this ancient practice can do for you.

Copyright © 2008 Milton Huang All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2008 Milton Huang All rights reserved.

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