These days, a stiff neck and tense shoulders seem like unavoidable side effects from working in front of a computer screen for long hours. In fact, we are so beset with 21st century ailments that we’re practically manic in our search for new antidotes suited to our technologically dependent lifestyles. Oddly enough, many are discovering a remedy that has been around for ages. Tai chi, the centuries-old Chinese martial art known for its amazing health benefits, not only can alleviate aches and pains, it also can reduce their recurrence.
Simply described, tai chi is meditative movement performed slowly and consciously. Even a few minutes of doing the moves can have a relaxing effect. People commonly report astonishing results from regularly practicing tai chi over time, including: improved blood circulation, better balance and coordination, increased flexibility and range of motion, reduced stress, better sexual function, more fulfilling sleep, fewer headaches, better digestion, less fatigue and more energy, even fewer episodes of sinusitis, and yes, . . . less pain in the neck from staring at a computer monitor too long.
Susan Matthews, MS, ND, who has taught tai chi in Durango for years, tells tai chi students that chronic head and neck pain often come from leaning the head forward so much that you have to rely on the relatively small neck muscles to hold it up. Your head weighs about 20 pounds, so those muscles get fatigued to say the least. Plus, your shoulders slump and your chest crumples, hindering breathing and the amount of oxygen reaching your lungs and brain. Before you know it, you’re holding that position long after you get up and go home. You drive in that position, walk, talk, stand, eat. Your muscles tire out and cry out in pain.
Tai chi is an “internal” martial art, different in principle from martial arts like karate and tae kwon do. The slow, deliberate moves you see practitioners doing are initiated from inside the body; for example, opening and closing the hip joints. This can be great for your salsa dancing.
It takes time to train the mind to focus on moving from within. There are many methods for developing this sensitivity, but most employ visualization.
To help relieve neck and shoulder tension try these two techniques.
Sit up straight with your chin lightly tucked in and relaxed. Place the tip of your tongue lightly on the pallet where an indentation forms behind the teeth. Breathe gently while exhaling and inhaling fully, not forcefully. Imagine your head being pulled upward by a string attached to the scalp, allowing your neck and spine vertebrae to suspend loosely from your skull, like a marionette. Feel your arms and legs dropping under their own weight, no muscles straining to hold them up.
Now, visualize a steady stream of water pouring from the top of your head, down your body, through the spine, through your abdomen and down the legs. Like a pleasant mountain stream flowing gently downhill. Visualize your neck and shoulders following the water, releasing tension with it. Washing off like so much dirt and grime. Don’t force it, just think it and let it happen. Let your mind follow the water’s flow like you’re riding the crest of a wave or you’re in a bowsprit of a boat with a commanding view.
Allow the water to wash through each of your vertebrae and your joints, like a rivulet winds through the stones in a stream bed. See the spaces between your vertebrae opening and welcoming the cool, refreshing wetness. Let your spine elongate as though you were hanging from a tree branch. Make sure the ribs also stretch and open, making room, airing out. Stretch them like an accordion and leave them opened up that way. Let your stomach muscles relax. Let it happen with a thought.
Now, sitting up straight with your feet spread about shoulder width and flat on the ground in front of you, gently move your stomach in a circle like a belly dancer. Imagine a fist-sized ball spinning around the inside of your stomach while you move. Visualize the ball actually moving your body around by placing your attention on it and following it around and around. Take turns moving your ball vertically and horizontally, back and forth, and left and right. Let your shoulders relax and drop down and try to feel the neck muscles loosen their grip.
These so-called “chi circles” (pronounced chee) help to increase blood circulation in the internal organs and increase oxygen flow to your brain.
How well this exercise works depends on how you perform the moves and visualizations. But you will probably feel some beneficial effects every time you do them. Try taking a tai chi class or private lessons from a qualified teacher to learn other relaxation techniques as well as the underlying principles.
The list of tai chi’s benefits is so long and encompassing that it seems almost too good to be true. But practitioners will tell you “believe it.” The key is to practice regularly, perform the moves correctly, in proper alignment, giving attention to your body in new ways. Eventually, your body will “internalize” what it learns so you don’t have to think consciously about the principles for them to work for you while you’re doing something else, like your taxes online.
Freelance writer/editor and communication consultant, Tim Richard, lives and works in Durango, Colorado where he teaches and has practiced tai chi since 1999 under the tutelage of Susan Matthews and George Xu. Learn more at durangotaichi.com.