Performing Tai Chi movements slowly seems to be a challenge for the majority of students. To be honest, at times, it’s a challenge for instructors as well. We know that according to the Tai Chi principles , we should move slowly.
Is it because the circular movements take longer to perform? Or is it so that we pay more attention to the actual movement? Does it have to do with building internal power? Or is it because it is better for our bodies and mental well being? The answer is yes, yes, yes and yes!
It is hard to separate the physical from the mental benefits of Tai Chi because they are so entwined. Tai Chi is often referred to as moving meditation because the movements are mindful and promote relaxation. They also allow you to relax the mind and notice more depth in the movement. Through the slow, circular movements, our focus follows and directs the positioning of our hands and feet, which improves our balance and coordination, while helping us to reconnect our mind with our body. Grounding, rooting and centering are enhanced when we go slowly. The result is an improvement in our nervous system as we become more aware of our body and let go of the fight/flight tendencies caused by the stress of the modern world.
We know that Tai Chi provides excellent exercise for the muscles and joints. Faster movements result in using momentum rather than strength. The slow movements slowly stretch and relax our muscles which promotes blood circulation throughout our entire body without vigorous exertion. Neck and back pain are reduced as we gently turn and twist the spine. Through practice, we learn to relax tense muscles which contribute to chronic pain and discomfort. Slow movements also build “slow twitch” muscles which support joints. Slow motion and dynamic stretching allow connective tissue (a type of tissue that provides internal support and cohesion in the body) to slide and maintain the proper form of the body.
Slow movement also allows the joints to align properly for safe movement and better blood flow. Flexibility is improved. Safety is enhanced as you step in a mindful manner while transferring your weight. You become more aware of your posture and alignment. You begin to notice the places where your movements are not smooth and fluid. Areas that you need to focus on while practicing.
How about our breathing? Our breathing will also become slow and deep as we move slowly, making it easier to integrate our breath with our movements. The diaphragm mobilizes and causes the rise and fall in pressure of the abdominal and chest cavities. Our body functions are enhanced as the rising and falling pressure massages the organs and glands. The flow of lymph (which returns fluid from the tissues back into the central venous system) in the entire body is also activated.
What about qi, or our internal energy? Qi flows like water. Going too fast doesn’t allow it to flow properly. Slow, focused movements allow the Tai Chi practitioner to develop inner strength, or internal power, which is much more powerful than the brute strength of hard martial arts. In addition, Tai Chi practice develops greater accuracy, speed (when necessary), coordination and heightened opponent awareness. According to the Gin Soon Tai Chi Chuan Federation, Tai Chi is efficient at developing internal power. The Federation believes that intent is the commander of all movement. Slow movements focus on the Yin and fast movements focus on the Yang. Harmony is achieved!
I also want to mention heart health. Harvard Medical School researchers state “regular practice for as little as 12 weeks could help give you a ‘healthy body, strong heart, and sharp mind.’”
Last, but not least, practicing Tai Chi slowly is enjoyable. So why would we want to rush through it?