Meditation, tai chi used to undo effects of stress

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Contemporary life is full of convenient distractions and time-saving devices: shopping from your smartphone, gourmet meal services that ship premeasured ingredients to your door and an online world that means never having to miss a call, email or trending tweet.

While these gadgets and services make life more convenient, they don’t necessarily make life better. More and more people express the desire to unplug, disconnect from their devices and reconnect with themselves.

Many have turned to the practice of meditation or tai chi as a way to undo the effects of stress in our lives. Tai chi is a meditative martial art from China that uses slow, precise movements combined with focused breathing and a calm mind to generate relaxed strength both in the body and the spirit.

The slow, deep breathing of tai chi can also be performed without moving. Sitting or standing meditation for many produces the same benefits of releasing stress and clearing the mind. Fifteen minutes of seated meditation can be used as a way to recharge on your lunch break or destress after a long day.

Modern medicine is taking more and more notice of the role that stress plays in our lives and in our health. Stress has been shown to weaken the immune system, promote weight gain, and cause dysfunction in the hormonal and neurological systems.

Arts such as tai chi and yoga have long been credited with fantastic health benefits. In the last 20 years, hundreds of studies have proven that these benefits exist.

The slow, rhythmic movements of tai chi, combined with breathing and mindfulness, exert a powerful effect on the body. Compared with walking at a brisk pace, tai chi burns more calories, has increased cardiovascular benefits and generates more muscle mass.

Additionally, tai chi has proven stress-protective properties. Studies have shown that it controls the natural stress response of the body, lowering heart rate and blood pressure, and helping control important stress hormones.

Tai chi has also been shown to have benefits not only in preventing disease, but in treating it. Promising research has been done on its use for those who struggle with depression, anxiety, heart disease, autoimmune disorders and diabetes. Even patients who have suffered a stroke have shown improvement.

The field of complementary and alternative medicine is gaining traction even among the mainstream medical community. No longer a fringe movement, many of the large Boston teaching hospitals have departments that study tai chi, yoga and other alternative medical practices.

Therapies such as tai chi are seen as offering a unique benefit to patients when combined with modern medical practice. Ongoing research into the health benefits of yoga, meditation and tai chi will continue to benefit people who suffer from chronic medical conditions, and those who wish to avoid them.

Unplugging for 15 minutes to practice tai chi or sit in quiet meditation is just the thing that so many of us need to help us focus, reset and take back ownership of our lives.

Bill Lewitt is a nurse practitioner and the owner of He lives in Hollis and studies Chinese martial arts in Boston Chinatown.

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