The Tai Chi Nervous System Connection

In this article we will discuss the relationship between tai chi and your nervous system. First we must define what is the nervous system and explain its function.

The Nervous System: Definition and Function

The human nervous system controls all of the other systems in our body. This takes place through a very complex and wonderful feedback system from the body to the brain (sensation) and from the brain to the body (movement).

Your nervous system basically has two sides: The Central Nervous System (CNS) and the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).

The Central Nervous System (CNS)

The CNS includes your brain, spinal cord, and all of the nerves that exit your spine and branch out endlessly to supply your whole body. These nerves continually branch out more and more until they are eventually connected to every bone, muscle, organ, gland, tissue, and cell in your body. In this way, your central nervous system controls two functions: sensitivity and movement.

The CNS is responsible for all voluntary control functions of our body. In other words, we use our mind (intention, will, thought) to affect the movements of our body, determined by the feedback our brain receives through physical sensation. All physical movement is first a thought in the brain. This thought sends an impulse outward and causes movement.

Tai Chi/Life Basic Principle

More on this later, but for now it is important to present a basic principle of tai chi (and life in general). This is as follows:

The mind controls the body = harmony. The body controls the mind = chaos.

Intention is the Key!

In the practice of tai chi, we become very aware and efficient at using our mind or intention (Chinese “Yi”) to control our every movement, and in this way develop a high level of coordination and agility (as one sees when observing someone performing tai chi). There is a continuous feedback loop through the sensitivity of our CNS and this leads us to the beautiful movements of tai chi.

Our nerve sensation (feeling) starts in the extremities and moves inward through the spinal canal bringing impulses to our brain, registering everything that we feel moment by moment. The movement that results from this feedback happens through sending impulses from the brain outward to the extremities.

Sensitivity = nerve impulses from extremities to brain. Movement = nerve impulses from brain to extremities.

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)

The ANS or autonomic nervous system, is divided into two parts, the sympathetic and parasympathetic. This side of the nervous system is not under voluntary control like the CNS is, but rather is controlled automatically through an extensive and complicated internal feedback system.

The Sympathetic Nervous System

The sympathetic side of the ANS is sometimes referred to as the “fight or flight” system, and is responsible for giving us a burst of energy when we really need it. It is the stimulating side of the ANS.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System

The parasympathetic side is the calming part of the ANS, and is responsible to keep all functions in check so they don’t go of of control. In other words, it acts to prevent, for example, our hearts from beating too fast, or our stomach from producing too much acid that would result in an ulcer. There are many examples of the functions of the parasympathetic system. Enough here to note that it acts as a governor so things don’t over function.

Function of the Autonomic Nervous System

It is the job of the ANS to maintain balance of the function of all of our organs and glands, and in this way continually establish homeostasis (inner harmony). For this to happen, the sympathetic and parasympathetic must maintain a critical balance – not too much and not too little – otherwise we would not survive.

In this article I want to now focus on the parasympathetic side of the nervous system. That is, the side that slows down function and cultivates calmness and balance.

I give the following example:

Parasympathetic Nervous System and Internal Balance

Modern life can be very stressful, and this may cause a lot of tension – both of the body and mind. We need a way to balance the stress we are faced with on a daily basis, or the consequences could be very unhealthy, even fatal.

So as the example, you work all day under pressure in an unnatural setting with artificial lighting and air flow, sitting at a computer for hours and hours with no movement, and the tension continually building in your body. At the end of the day you can be a mess – the tension accumulates and causes pain, discomfort, sickness, and it is exhausting.

So what do we do? We go to the gym after work and exercise in a way that causes more stress on our bodies, with the mentality that if we exhaust ourselves physically, the tension will finally let go, and we feel relaxed once more. The “no pain no gain” mentality. This would be an example of focusing on the sympathetic side of our nervous system, the fight or flight side. The problem with this is that we are building tension on top of tension, and although it may temporarily relieve our stressful buildup of tension for a short time, it returns the very next day!

So now here is an example of dealing with this stressful buildup of tension by focusing on the parasympathetic, or relaxing, calming side of our nervous system. We already explained the effects of sitting at a desk all day using our brains until they are fried, and how tired, exhausted we feel.

So instead of going to the gym and lifting weights or doing some form of exercise (sympathetic) that further tires/exhausts us, we choose to engage in a form of exercise that cultivates the calming relaxing (parasympathetic) side of our nervous system. This way we reverse and balance the effects of the stressful day we just had. And the best exercise (in my humble opinion) to do this is… you guessed it: Tai Chi!

So now I ask you, which side of the nervous system makes more sense to develop, the sympathetic or parasympathetic? If you chose parasympathetic, you are correct.

If our nerves/bodies are exhausted from the day, why would we want to further exhaust them? But this is what so many people do day in and day out… and they do not understand why they are always exhausted and have no energy! And why their immune systems are depleted and they are so often not feeling well.

Some of you may think I am oversimplifying things. But why make things any more complicated than they need to be? Why not simplify whenever we can?

Relax with Tai Chi

The regular practice of tai chi affects the cultivation of the parasympathetic (calming) side of the ANS just by its Nature to focus on softness, smoothness, and quietude.

A Note on Tai Chi Breathing

Along with all of the information presented above on the effects of tai chi on your nervous system, we must also look at the effects of Tai Chi breathing. When practicing tai chi, our breathing slows down and becomes deeper, longer, and more calm. The deeper we breathe, the more oxygen enters every cell in our bodies. Oxygen is a nerve tonic – by Nature, it relaxes and calms our nerves.

For a detailed explanation of the breathing method incorporated in tai chi please see my article on breathing.

For more on tai chi and relaxation please see this article.

The Verdict

Choose tai chi. Learn it well. Practice it daily. It may just be one of the wisest decisions you make in your whole lifetime!

And you can thank me later for this advice…

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