Presence is a crucial aspect of mental and physical health. This idea is not only espoused by religious teachers, but is slowly validated within scientific research. Much of this blog is devoted to exploring the scientific validation of mindfulness practices on health, in particular, the effect mindfulness meditation has on our physical and mental health. However, multiple techniques can help foster this holistic lifestyle. Yoga is a famous example in the west as another form of this practice. Of course, yoga was traditionally meditative, and the physical aspect of yoga is new in relative terms. Regardless, yoga is a physical version of meditation formulated in India. Another culture that developed practices to instill presence is rooted in China. Not only did the Chinese meditate, but they formed a physical exercise and martial art known as Qi Gong (气功, qi gong), and a similar practice to emerge later known as Tai Chi (太极拳, tai ji quan). These practices produce similar effects on health compared to yoga and meditation. Therefore, they are one of many methods one can utilize to find presence.
Qi Gong is one of the most ancient forms of traditional Chinese medicine with a history of refinement of over 5000 years (Jahnke et al., 2010). The practice is composed of several martial art postures that are very fluid in motion. In the traditional sense, the purpose of these practices is to enhance one’s Qi (气). Tai Chi and Qi Gong are similar yet different. Tai Chi is typically more choreographed, lengthy, and more complex movements (Jahnke et al., 2010). Qi Gong, on the other hand, is simpler and easier to learn. Traditional instructions for both Qi Gong and Tai Chi are paraphrased as “mind the body and the breath, and then clear the mind to distill the Heavenly elixir within” (Jahnke et al., 2010). The intention of this post is not to fully elaborate on the philosophical implications of these words. However, note how the instructions here are almost identical to those of meditation practices.
The practice intends to instill an awareness of the present body, which leads to a calm mind that cultivates an understanding of something heavenly within. This idea shares a remarkable resemblance to the concept that meditation and the mind’s stillness create an altered consciousness characterized by a sense of unity of being with all of life, though there is no perfect term to describe this experience. Yet, this unity is likely the same thing as this “Heavenly elixir.” This experience has been clinically observed in meditators, psychedelic users, and those who experience religious moments. It seems to be the experiential one of the by-products and intents of these Chinese practices.
Outside of the more spiritual benefit, these practices manifest health benefits as well. Most research regarding these techniques focuses on Tai Chi. However, a literature review article noted that the Tai Chi used in academic settings is often simplified and more akin to Qi Gong (Jahnke et al., 2010). Therefore, Tai Chi and Qi Gong’s scientific literature will be considered the same here. For simplicity, I will refer to both as meditative martial arts.
Meditative martial arts share many health-related benefits to traditional forms of exercise, despite being less strenuous. For example, a literature review found that despite the absence of weight-bearing activity, meditative martial arts retard bone loss and the occurrence of fractures (Jahnke et al., 2010). Additionally, these practices help improve knee health in older adults, even compared to traditional forms of exercise (Chen et al., 2016). Meditative martial arts are also comparable to other forms of exercise in reducing blood pressure (Jahnke et al., 2010). Other research also similarly shown yoga to be superior to regular exercise in certain regards (Ross & Thomas, 2010). This is not to say that the purely physical aspect of meditative martial arts or yoga is superior in all cases. Instead, it is the mental aspect incorporated that provides extra benefits.
Meditative martial arts have been shown to decrease or modulate heart rate variability (HRV) (Jahnke et al., 2010; Lu & Kuo, 2003; Wei et al., 2016). This indicates increased parasympathetic nervous system activity in response to the breathing and meditative aspects of the practice. Increased parasympathetic activity can provide a cascade of health benefits across the body and is likely the source of the extra help. Meditative martial arts have also been theorized to benefit the gut microbiome and immune function, likely via the same mechanism, making meditative martial arts much more than physical exercise or fancy movements, but a practice that cultivates holistic health.
The idea that these meditative martial arts provide additional benefits, compared to traditional exercises that seem like the benefits of sitting meditation, brings to question the essence of these practices. It may seem odd that physical activity can induce benefits caused by sitting meditation because sitting meditation is, in part, aimed to generate mental stillness. Yet, optimal mental stillness seems impossible when one is mentally choreographing movements. This highlights the importance of not the mental stillness achieved by meditation, but the attention to the body’s sensations in the present moment. Both Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and even yoga involve the constant monitoring of the body’s sensations and position. The practice of this draws the individual’s attention to the present and experience of the present. This is a crucial aspect of all forms of meditation, including the sitting version. Perhaps sitting meditations may provide a better opportunity for mental stillness, but this is not the only important aspect of mindfulness practice.
For this reason, incorporating all these practices should be seen as the optimal path towards the goal. For one cannot be healthy by simply sitting, exercise is needed. At the same time, achieving great mental stillness will only heighten one’s practice beyond that gained merely by the meditative martial arts and yoga.
There are multiple techniques and methods to practice mindfulness that provide significant benefits to health and well-being. Both the sitting and movement-oriented practices contain their pros and cons. Neither is all encompassing and perhaps they are only complete when together. For those seeking a lifestyle of mindfulness, interested in holistic health, and maybe even the obtainment of enlightenment, it is recommended that sitting meditation and meditative martial arts, or yoga, be incorporated within your daily practice.
Chen, Y. W., Hunt, M. A., Campbell, K. L., Peill, K., & Reid, W. D. (2016). The effect of Tai Chi on four chronic conditions – cancer, osteoarthritis, heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: A systematic review and meta-analyses. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 50(7), 397–407. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2014-094388
Jahnke, R., Larkey, L., Rogers, C., Etnier, J., & Lin, F. (2010). A comprehensive review of health benefits of qigong and tai chi. American Journal of Health Promotion : AJHP, 24(6). https://doi.org/10.4278/ajhp.081013-lit-248
Lu, W. A., & Kuo, C. D. (2003). The Effect of Tai Chi Chuan on the Autonomic Nervous Modulation in Older Persons. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 35(12), 1972–1976. https://doi.org/10.1249/01.MSS.0000099242.10669.F7
Ross, A., & Thomas, S. (2010). The health benefits of yoga and exercise: A review of comparison studies. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16(1), 3–12. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2009.0044
Wei, G. X., Li, Y. F., Yue, X. L., Ma, X., Chang, Y. K., Yi, L. Y., Li, J. C., & Zuo, X. N. (2016). Tai Chi Chuan modulates heart rate variability during abdominal breathing in elderly adults. PsyCh Journal, 5(1), 69–77. https://doi.org/10.1002/pchj.105