One of the best developments in the world of Taiji has been the quantification of the healing benefits of Taiji and Qigong practice. I applaud this work, and admire those doing it, especially that of my teacher, Dr. Yang. We now have verifiable proof based on evidence-based trials, conducted by those with solid familiarity with the practice, of the healing effects of Taiji and Qigong practice. But what isn't always so obvious, especially since it is not so easily measurable, are the deeper psychological and spiritual benefits (1).
To be sure, this aspect of our lives is subjective to a degree. But the extent to which it is affected by Taiji-Qigong practice is notable and similar among various people. Also, in my opinion based on Dr. Yang's premises, such changes being associated with Taiji-Qigong practice are based on a traditional curriculum which includes Qigong, Taiji form and weapons, partner practices, and meditation. Further, such changes are typically based on dedicated, extensive daily practice. The following "benefits" of practice, are based on my own findings and those reported to me by friends and fellow practitioners across the training spectrum. It is not scientific in the least, but I maintain that the number of folks who report these results could warrant a study of some sort, if that is possible and anyone were interested enough to try it.
Following are the psycho-spiritual benefits I have noticed:
Increased confidence. This is often reported by most people who practice martial arts, and for obvious reasons. However, I think there is more to this than confidence in the ability to defend oneself. There is a deeper sense of well-being often reported. Taiji in particular is a difficult art and acquiring some degree of competence is an accomplishment. I am sure this contributes, but even so, there is still that deep sense of peace that tends to settle on the practitioner. This peace seems to be a result of living in a unified mind-body state. I think this unification is as much if not more the source of confidence than any element that can be objectively identified.
Less fear and anxiety. This is obviously related to the above. It is also often reported by meditators and yoga practitioners who do not do Taiji-Qigong. Further, it is also reported by martial artists of all stripes. But this is more than a lack of fear in relation to other people. This is a weakening of phobias and anxiety. Much like increased confidence, I think it is more than anything else related to unification. The dichotomy of mind and body, and/or mind-body and spirit has been a thorn in the side of humanity forever. Bringing it all together is reassuring and induces peace and well-being in the practitioner.
Increased compassion. Again, this is also mentioned by meditators, whether they have a physical practice or not. For me, this is just another extension of the two factors noted above. With an increase in confidence and a decrease in fear we can more easily look beyond ourselves and connect with our fellow humans on a different level. You may notice, non-judgmentally if you can, that those who are not as confident and are more consumed with fear and anxiety may have a harder time being compassionate. Of course this is a generalization and does not apply across the board, but think about the relationship. Better, notice the changes in yourself as you progress in your practice.
Better sleep. OK, this one can be and has been measured. However, I want to include it here because I think sleep is more than a physical process. Our dream state, REM state, and dreamless sleep are holistic events. We heal when we sleep. We also grow psychologically and spiritually in our sleep. Sleep is as much a defining factor in our growth as Taiji, Qigong, or meditation. Some years ago, I took the 100 days of the Chinese New Year to refine and define my practice of the Hao Chuan, or Old Yang Style Taiji Form. I worked on this form extensively everyday for 100 days. Somewhere around 65 days in (+/-) I started experiencing deeper sleep than I have ever had in my life, and REM dreams right before awakening that just did not conform to words very well. Additionally, my digestion and body processes improved in efficiency. However, after the 100 days were over I started dropping the practice some as it is not my primary style and I was deepening my study of Chen Style with Dr. Yang. As I dropped the Hao Chuan from my routine, the experiences began to fall away. Some 6 months later, I started practicing the form again and they came back. I don't make any claims whatsoever as to the cause of this and I am sure it is not quantifiable. I have a theory but it is based on colloquial Chinese understanding of TCM and Qigong, and as such doesn't conform very well to Western philosophy. To that end, I will not include it here so as not to take away from my point. However, the experience was and is very real for me. I consider that form to be one of the most potent expressions of Qigong I have ever practiced and it is a solid component of my training/practice routine that still informs my psycho-spiritual self and my sleep.
Slowed aging. I am sure this one is controversial, and of course can't be measured. However, if you take any given Taiji-Qigong practitioner who has been practicing intensively for over five years or so, chances are good that they don't appear or function at the level of their biological age, and likely appear younger than their age peers. The ancient Daoists considered the Primordial Heaven-Earth Qigong form as a practice for reversing aging, among other things. When I first heard that I thought it was quaint and maybe blown out of proportion. Now, after many years of practice including working with that particular form, I do believe and have experienced a slowing in the aging process. Age reversal may be a bit of hyperbole. However, basic knowledge of the Qigong process is enough to understand how the physical body stays agile and supple over time. I don't make any firm claims, but stand by my experience and observations.
Following the Dao. In essence, dedicated Taiji-Qigong practice tends to make overall life flow easier. We learn to go with the flow and change with the change rather than fighting the inevitable. This is following the Dao. Many report more acute intuition. In push hands, the seasoned practitioner is better able to anticipate his partners actions often before they even happen. All the more so with the ups and downs of life. This effect is often not blatant and may not even be realized by the practitioner for some time. But many find over time that life is easier to navigate and more peaceful overall. The Buddhists say that life is suffering and prescribe a method, The Noble Eightfold Path, for dealing with said suffering. I would say that most so-called suffering in life comes from resisting what happens and living in the past and future. Taiji practice teaches the subconscious mind to go with the flow. Over time this is just what we do. Thus suffering is minimized as we avoid it quite naturally.
It has also been my experience that these added benefits are typically the result of dedicated intensive practice, typically 45 minutes to 2 hours a day on average. When we train more the results are exponential. Twice the training time delivers four to five times the benefit, and that multiplier of results increases over time. Of course any training is better than no training, and we all have lives to live and challenges to negotiate. However, if you really want to transform, you will find the time to train. Once these higher level benefits start kicking in, most people never look back.
(1) Note, my use of the word spiritual here is defined as the deep, holistic, integral life of the individual which includes the higher functioning of consciousness (awareness) and all aspects of personal and social being; in effect, all of our existence, including physical and mental health, social adjustability, and our relationship with our past and future, to the extent they actually affect and/or inform us