December 13, 2011

Natural High: Tai Chi

Learn how to master moving meditation with tai chi 

By Kelsey Allen
When people think of tai chi, they might think of kung fu fighting and The Karate Kid. But tai chi is more than self-defense; it is an art form—one that Chris DeTora has come to practice in his everyday life. Translated, tai chi means “supreme ultimate” or “the state of the universe when it first came to be” and is about connecting with the natural and allowing things to be as they may, which is something DeTora utilizes as a mainstay in his recovery program.
First introduced to tai chi when he was 16 years old, DeTora read a book on Taoism that spoke of the union that should be felt with nature and the importance of simplicity. The book referenced tai chi as the physical art of embodying this philosophy. But at the time, DeTora’s priority was getting high, and studying the Chinese martial art fell to the back burner.
“I look at addiction as a lot of resistance to what is,” DeTora says. “That resistance was a very big part of my getting high. That lack of feeling like there was a path for me.”
After floating in and out of rehab and detox centers for years, DeTora got clean when he was 23. About a year later, he started practicing tai chi again and found that the martial art resonated with him in a way that it couldn’t when he was high.
“Tai chi is about finding that path within your movement and just letting things be what they are and moving within that,” DeTora says. 
A Path for Healing
In many recovery circles, surviving the disease of addiction involves treating the mind, body and spirit. Bill Betts, president  and CEO of the Motion Health Institute and Palm Beach Tai Chi in West Palm Beach, Fla., says that the Chinese martial arts are an excellent way to begin that healing. 
Tai chi can be broken down into three separate practices: nei gong, chi kung and tai chi. Nei gong is the simple practice of meditation; the goal is to train the mind to be calm and positive. Betts says that just as an acupuncturist sticks a patient with needles to stimulate energy, a student of tai chi can do with meditation in nei gong.
“If you learn how to connect to those acupoints with your mind, it helps you to not be so stressed out and to focus on the moment,” Betts says. For martial art beginners, nei gong is an easy way to reconnect the mind and body. Once nei gong is mastered, students then move to chi kung, which introduces movement into meditation.
In an article published on Palm Beach Tai Chi’s website, David McVinney writes about the benefits of chi kung on recovery. McVinny, a mental health counselor and student of tai chi, writes that the combination of meditation, muscle and tendon exercises and energy gathering exercises that take place when practicing chi kung is key for recovering individuals.
“This type of gentle exercise routine helps the body develop stamina, coordination, flexibility and balance,” McVinny writes. “Due to various types of physical trauma suffered by the addict as a result of addiction, withdrawal and post-withdrawal factors, the chi kung routines serve to support a gradual return of physical and internal functioning without risk of injury.”
In the final stage of the process, students learn tai chi or “moving meditation.” 
McVinny writes that when practiced correctly, tai chi manifests in this manner: The mind has an idea. This idea produces a feeling. From this idea and feeling, a movement naturally occurs.
DeTora, who has now been practicing tai chi for more than 17 years, says this principle was complementary to his recovery. “The movements of tai chi are about finding a natural way to move,” DeTora says. “It is a movement that has no stops and starts. It has patience and no resistance. [It has] stillness and movement. The sense of calm and ease that I get from it has become such a part of what my life is. It is a part of everything that I do.”
A High That Works
At a higher level of expertise, tai chi can be used as self-defense, but not too many people get to that level. It would require studying under a good master and three to four years of diligent practice. Betts has been studying tai chi for 14 years and says that the benefits reach far past knowing how to defend himself. When he first started practicing, he was just looking for a way to relax. 
Job stress had resulted in stomach issues, hemorrhoids and carpal tunnel syndrome. But then he learned one of the fundamentals of tai chi: the vertical line inside, which is the spine. As he learned to lengthen his spine through tai chi movements, he started to notice just how compacted his spine was, from walking around the office to how he was sitting in a chair. “I started to recognize that my spine always should be vertical,” Betts says.
“I had to become aware of it, but now it just comes naturally to me.” Betts no longer suffers from carpal tunnel, something that prior to tai chi was going to require surgery to correct. “Even though it is simple, it is very powerful.”
Other benefits of tai chi include muscle toning and strengthening, stimulation of the circulation of blood, relief of stress and anxiety as well as alleviation of hypertension, high blood pressure and digestive problems. Mentally and emotionally, tai chi teaches students to be observant and perceptive, to be aware and not distracted and to be modest and not showy.
Through these principles, tai chi can help to reduce the amount of stress and pain many individuals suffer through addiction and recovery and can ultimately help to decrease the likeliness for relapse.
“The old masters would tell us about how to move,” DeTora remembers of one of his earliest lessons. “‘Stand like a mountain, and move like a river,’ they would say.” It is the art in this martial art that allows the body to be calm and relaxed while invigorating the spirit and energy that resides with the body. 

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