Through these changing stances and whole-body movements, multidimensional both spatially and the internally, you learn to be more aware of your body. You become aware of your tension, your balance, your energy, your emotional stability, and your visual surroundings. You pay attention to your energy center and are able to self-correct your posture. You know if you are off-center or if you lose your balance. You move with your intention, and you move your body while your mind experiences calm and peace.
Taiji movement stimulates the senses, the faculty of motor control, the sense of spatial orientation, the sense of balance and equilibrium, the forebrain and hindbrain, and the left and right brain. It also provides cross-brain stimulation. The whole brain is stimulated. Taiji movements are very good brain fitness exercises. We use aerobic exercise to increase our heart rate and promote better circulation. We also need brain fitness exercises to improve our brain function and learning abilities. Western science has confirmed that movement is crucial to brain health and definitely affects cognitive change. Eastern practitioners knew it all along.
Movement Crucial to Brain Function
Evidence shows that movement is also crucial to every other brain function, including memory, emotion, language, learning, and more. Try to do qigong for three to five minutes when you are tired after working, or writing a paper if you are a student, and your brain can’t seem to think anymore. You will be able to return to work refreshed or put more words on paper. What is happening here? Our higher brain functions evolved from lower functions involving basic mobility, and these higher functions still depend on the lower ones. A sedentary lifestyle promotes brain aging—too much TV or any other couch potato, “brain dead” activity.
The well-known kinesiology and learning researcher Dr. Paul Dennison, along with his wife, movement educator Gail Dennison, have developed a movement program that has been proven to exercise the brain. They call it Brain Gym. Brain Gym is a movement-based technique to enhance learning ability for children who have learning difficulties in conventional settings. As we age, we do not learn as quickly or as well as younger people. The information takes longer to put into memory storage, and it takes longer to learn new things. Studies have shown that we shift from being visual and auditory learners to kinesthetic learners. That is, we don’t absorb so much from reading or listening as we once did—we need to learn by doing. Above and beyond this learning style, Brain Gym has helped to establish even stronger links between certain kinds of movement techniques and enhancing brain function in general. The exercise movements from taiji and qigong can help adults achieve maximum learning and delay the brain-aging process.
I have a friend named Nancy. Nancy’s husband has several electronic systems hooked into the television and therefore needs several different remotes. To watch TV, she has to use several buttons on each remote. Even though her husband has taught her several times, she still cannot find the right button to turn on the TV. Finally, she just bought another TV with only one remote. Many older people have trouble using multisystem entertainment centers. Here is an opposite story. One of my taiji students studied piano at the age of fifty-eight. She told me that her piano teacher was amazed at her ability to learn. My own experience was learning cello—I didn’t start until I was forty-nine. I was skeptical myself! But now I realize I can learn, and I even improve. It makes me feel good to see that improvement.
Taiji Enhances Learning
With certain body movements to stimulate neural pathways, you enable nerve cells to communicate with each other and create more activity in the brain network. The participant feels more alert and can easily put memory into storage and later retrieve the information. That is why we say taiji enhances learning ability.
Taiji and qigong movements balance both sides of the brain by encouraging cross- connections with information between the left and right brain. With this special training, our dominant side can become more cooperative with the other, fostering a greater balance between the two sides. This hemispheric balance helps you to develop well-balanced cognitive, communication, and social skills. Once your brain is more balanced, you may even be more pleasant with your partner or companion, more easygoing, better able to multitask, more even- tempered, have an increased ability to learn new things, and be less rigid or stubborn. These are some of the changes I have observed firsthand in many of my students.
The cross-brain movements create a sort of cross-brain training. The stimulation causes more communication to occur through synapses of the brain cells. This enhanced connection and communication between the brain cells keeps our brains young and our memory strong.
Science has also confirmed that taiji improves the body’s balance. The cerebellum controls balance, coordination, adjustment, and smoothing out of movement. Taiji improves the cerebellum’s function, bringing about better coordination and balance.
Recent studies have shown that the cerebellum is not just related to movement but also to cognition. For those with injuries to the brain and cerebellum, there are studies that suggest a possibility for healing from taiji and qigong practice. Because taiji improves cerebellum function, it is likely practice of the art will improve both physical balance and cognitive skill. By rewiring the brain itself, not only can the brain learn new tricks, but it can also change its structure and function, even in old age. Taiji is truly a brain fitness regimen for adults.
Balance and the Autonomic Nerve System
In the human body, all functions are controlled through the nervous system, and all organs are controlled by the autonomic nerve system. Many illnesses are caused by disorders of these systems. My main focus in my healing work is regulating the nervous system, which made a big difference in my healing ability.
Understanding the Nervous System
Autonomic nerve impulses originate in the central nervous system and perform the most basic human functions automatically, without conscious control. Autonomic nerve fibers exiting from the central nervous system form the sympathetic, the parasympathetic, and the enteric nervous systems. The actions of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems often oppose each other. For example, sympathetic nerves are responsible for increasing the heart rate, raising blood pressure, and causing us to breathe harder. The parasympathetic nerves do the opposite: decrease heart rate, reduce blood pressure, and slow down breath. The sympathetic system is involved in “fight and flight” responses while the parasympathetic division is involved in “rest and digest” actions that do not require an immediate response.
The sympathetic nervous system connects the internal organs to the brain. It responds to stress by increasing heart rate and blood flow to the muscles and decreasing blood flow to the skin. The parasympathetic nervous system increases digestive secretions and slows the heartbeat.
Both systems give feedback to the central nervous system about the condition of internal organs to help maintain the body’s equilibrium.
The autonomic nervous system controls the iris and the muscles involved in the functioning of the heart, lungs, stomach, and other organs. It is in charge of the automatic functions—those we have no control over. These include the beating of the heart, digestion, breathing, and sexual arousal. Emotions strongly influence the autonomic nervous system. For example, anger makes your heart beat faster, and anxiety can interfere with digestion.
Patients visit their doctors for unexplained symptoms, and they are disappointed when doctors cannot find anything wrong and cannot help them. These unexplained ailments are most likely caused by disorders of the autonomic nervous system. When I correct the imbalance of an autonomic disorder, the patient’s symptoms diminish, and the patient feels better. When they call me a “miracle worker,” I just tell them what I did: regulated autonomic function. The autonomic nervous system has a close relation to the meridian system in Chinese medicine. I love working with the nervous systems, especially the autonomic nervous system because people can feel the difference right away.
The movements in taiji and qigong, as well as total-body warm-up exercises, involve twisting and turning of the whole body, loosening the spine and all of the vertebrae joints. This makes these paired nerves work in harmony, balancing the autonomic nervous system and therefore maintaining homeostasis in the body and brain. Deep and slow breathing stimulate the respiratory and circulatory centers in the brain, helping to regulate autonomic function.
The above is an excerpt from Brain Fitness: The Easy Way of Keeping Your Mind Sharp through Qigong by Aihan Kuhn, CMD, OBT, Pub date 2017, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 978-1-59439-524-6.