The concept of training the mind and body in a coordinated fashion is exemplified in the art of Jiulong Baguazhang. It begins with an emphasis on developing good body mechanics and the ability to reduce unnecessary muscle tension. Exercises include quiet sitting, holding standing postures and moving slowly from one posture to the other. Relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing (breathing with no chest or shoulder movement) play key roles in these practices.
The foundation upon which mental training rests is learning to sit quietly, relax the muscles and allow one’s thoughts to settle by simply paying attention to the act of breathing. If the thoughts wander, one draws one’s attention back to the sensation of breathing. In this fashion, the mind’s ability to concentrate increases. As concentration skill increases so does the ability to use mind to develop physical skills.
Slow movement allows the student to concentrate on relaxing the muscles not needed for the movement while using mental imagery to enhance performance. An example of this might be to imagine pushing a great weight while stepping forward with one’s arms in an appropriate position. Repeated practice affects the nervous system in much the same way as practicing scales on a piano does. Strength and endurance improve with minimal mechanical stress on joints, tendons and ligaments. Taijiquan (Tai Chi) uses similar slow relaxed movements, as do several other Chinese martial and health arts.
As the student progresses she becomes able to move with greater speed, power and efficiency. Equally important is the training effect on the ability to relax, focus and use mental imagery. The relevance of all this to chronic pain patients is easy to see.
For most people with chronic pain it may hurt to sit, stand or move. Many avoid physical activity for fear of inducing pain but physical de-conditioning from too little exercise may increase pain and reduce the ability to function. Fear, avoidance and pain can form a vicious circle that leads to a downward spiral into greater disability (see Fear and Pain (#2-Pain and Fear).
However, meditation and relaxation are known to be effective in reducing anxiety (both techniques are widely used in psychology and pain medicine). People in pain tolerate slow gentle movements better than conventional physical therapy, particularly if they can remain calm while moving. Practicing proper body mechanics (such as when lifting or carrying) is vital to reducing pain and improving performance. Mental imagery and rehearsal can be extremely useful to improve physical function in someone whose pain limits the ability to move.
Jiulong Baguazhang practitioners use these tools to prepare for physical combat. I feel they are ideal methods for use by a fearful, de-conditioned chronic pain patient who must combat pain every day.