Dr. Victor Feder
Staff Psychiatrist of North York General Hospital
A story of personal experience and explanation of how tai chi relates to the qualities of strong mental health.
I discovered Ji Hong Tai Chi many years ago. Instructor May taught me the first form, Sifu Liang taught me how to practice. Time passes but I cannot but feel always a beginner. The more I think I know, the more I realize I have to learn. At the beginning we were frequently just three or four students in one class but was also during that time we had one student (Bill) coming to class every Saturday from Buffalo, New York. The school became “international” very early in its life. I saw the classes grow in complexity and number, as more people started recognizing how much the school has to offer.
At some point Sifu Liang was away in China for several months. I was asked and honoured to teach one Yang style class. Most of the class was “non‐Canadian” so ‐believe it or not‐ someone had to translate what I said in class from English into Cantonese; this is one of the highlights of my life. I will tell this story to my grandchildren and I should add it to my resumé.
I am a physician and health is my matter. Studies have shown that Tai Chi practice promotes balance, improves arthritis and high blood pressure. No doubt there are many more health benefits; any practitioner will know from experience.
Mental Health Benefits
I am a psychiatrist and there is in my view a very close link between Tai Chi concepts and Mental Health. As well I believe there is a very close link between practicing Tai Chi and being mentally healthy.
“Yi” provides intention or purpose when we practice Tai Chi, in the same way it provides a direction to our behaviour. We follow the form in our Tai Chi practice; similarly we follow rules in our behaviour; where rules relate to social values and personal norms. Intention gives us a direction, a path and a goal. People suffer when they lack direction or purpose.
Some define Tai Chi as “meditation in movement”, which is no other than the concentration we have to maintain while we practice. Concentration that is difficult to attain, but work as an anchor in our practice and helps regulate our emotions.
“Chi” centers in the “Dan Tien” and leads the action. Without a centre, we lack coordination. Without coordination we lack effectiveness. The form is a symbol of life itself. It is not easy to feel the “Dan Tien” both when practicing the form or developing our personal projects.
The “Dan Tien” is the hub for contracting the “Chi” or expanding it. This pulsation or cycle between contraction and expansion is similar to the principle used in meditation and we have increasing evidence of the benefit that meditation has on depression, anxiety and other mental disorders.
“Sinking” is when the “Dan Tien” projects down between the feet; giving us root, our foundation and balance. The comparison is obvious when we talk about someone who is “well grounded” as having a base, a place to rest, or a launching pad.
Strong and Flexible; Relaxed and Effective
Tai Chi is built on the foundation of “softness through relaxation”, and “power (Jing) through the flow of energy (Chi)”. This is a good metaphor on how Mental Health is described: “Be flexible so you can adjust, be powerful so you can promote change”.
If practicing the form is a model of how we interact with the world, then Push Hands is the model of how we interact with each other: you give space, you take space; you are sensitive of the other person’s intention and moves; you combine his or her energy with yours towards your goal.
My short experience with pushing hands helped me understand better how we relate to each other, how I relate to the people around me including my patients. How I have to ground myself and be able to absorb energy, how I have to listen carefully and respond cautiously. The difference is that in Psychotherapy there is no supposed winner or loser, you work together for a common good. You help; you don’t want to defeat the other person. This is the model we follow in this school, where kindness predominates. People smile at each other, help each other, translate, gather and celebrate.
I have learnt so much and I feel there is so much more yet to learn. Thank you Sifu and May for helping me be a better professional and I hope a better person.