Tai Chi as a Complementary Support for Addiction Treatment and Relapse Prevention

As the medical community becomes more aware of Tai Chi and its many benefits for mental and physical health, a growing number of addiction treatment centers have integrated the practice into their rosters of complementary treatments.

Although Tai Chi doesn’t replace traditional forms of treatment, people in recovery often find it helpful when used to support counseling, group therapy, education, medication, and Twelve-Step groups. Many people who first try Tai Chi during recovery report they continue to integrate the practice into daily life after they leave treatment.

Although more research is needed, studies suggest that Tai Chi is associated with improved concentration, better physical coordination, balance, and decreased accidental falls, especially in the elderly. Additional research also associates the practice of Tai Chi with increased self-esteem and a decrease in stress, anxiety, and depression.

One recent study followed several individuals who were addicted to amphetamines. After only three months, those who practiced Tai Chi reported reduced depression, greater energy, and general improvements in overall health.

Although long-term results come only with practice, many people say they begin to feel better immediately – even after a single session.

What is Tai Chi?

Tai Chi, a type of exercise rooted in ancient Chinese philosophy and martial arts, has been practiced for centuries. Although it is a martial art, Tai Chi differs from other martial arts. It focuses on relaxation, control, and perfect alignment and technique. The movements are, and stress rhythms, balance, and harmony. Although most Tai Chi movements are practiced slowly and deliberately, the martial application of the movements are fast and decisive.

However, 99.99% of people who practice Tai Chi do so for the physical and health benefits, rather than self-defense. Most people don’t even know that hidden in the slow, beautiful movements there are martial applications.

That’s a completely different topic, however.

This blog is about how Tai Chi can help people in recovery from alcohol and/or substance use disorders – which mostly revolves around the benefits associated with stress and emotional reactivity.

Viewed through the lens of traditional Chinese medicine, Tai Chi balances or realigns chi. According to Chinese medical theory, chi as an energy that exists in all things in the universe, including the human body. Traditional practitioners believe restoring balance to and realigning chi is the key to health and overall wellbeing.

If you’ve observed an experienced Tai Chi practitioner, you probably noticed that the movements appear slow and graceful. They flow naturally from one to the next without interruption. They emphasize precise, coordinated movements, body posture, relaxation, and controlled breathing. This balance, smoothness, and symmetry is thought to help redistribute chi throughout the body, remove blockages, and improve both mental and physical health.

The Benefits of Tai Chi

Tai Chi is a low-impact exercise that anyone can practice, regardless of fitness level or age. It requires no special equipment, other than comfortable, loose clothing.

Some people find Tai Chi is more helpful than aerobic exercise because of the mindful, meditative component. Although the exercises are slow, they improve circulation of blood and oxygen through the body while stretching and strengthening the muscles.

Tai Chi is appropriate for people who haven’t exercised in a long time or who are hesitant to begin for fear of failure. The rewards of regular practice can also include decreased blood pressure or relief of chronic pain associated with fibromyalgia, arthritis, or headaches.

How Tai Chi Helps Addiction

People who practice Tai Chi during recovery report something important: they relearn how to connect with their minds and bodies. They become more attuned to their thoughts and feelings. When combined with traditional therapy, this connection to their bodies and this renewed awareness of thoughts and emotions can help people in recovery cope with the stress and strain of everyday life.

Learning to cope with negative thought patterns is critical to the recovery process. Like mindfulness, Tai Chi teaches people in recovery to detach from and observe their thoughts and emotions as they are, not as they wish them to be. This – in conjunction with traditional therapy and support – enables people in recovery to recognize and free themselves from the patterns of thought and emotion associated with addiction. Instead of responding instinctively to triggering emotions and turning to alcohol or drugs for momentary relief, Tai Chi – and mindfulness practices in general – can help people in recovery move from reactive modes of thought and behavior to proactive modes of thought and behavior.

For people in the early stages of recovery whose emotions may be all over the map, Tai Chi can help stabilize moods, provide mental focus and clarity, and smooth out the rough spots. For people later in recovery, Tai Chi can be a key element in an ongoing recovery plan. In the language of Twelve-Step programs, Tai Chi is a top-line recovery activity. It checks all the boxes. It’s good for your mind and body. It can be practiced alone or in groups – check that social box. And it can provide a big boost to your emotions and self-esteem – check that emotional regulation box.

How to Get Started

The best way to learn Tai Chi is in real-time from a real person. It’s easy to find loads of books and videos online, and some are very good. However, nothing beats learning a new skill from a living, breathing person. Tai Chi is a refined art. The postures and movements, though performed slowly, are precise. Getting them right requires meticulous practice. You can make inroads practicing alone from a video, but there is literally no comparison to the progress you can make from having an experience teacher watch, correct, encourage, and demonstrate the moves over and over until they become second nature.

Although most forms of Tai Chi aren’t strenuous, performing the exercises incorrectly can exacerbate joint pain – that’s another reason to take a class in-person from an experienced teacher: they can prevent any potential injury.

Experts agree the ideal place to practice Tai Chi is in a peaceful outdoor environment, preferably early in the morning so it can energize your mind, warm up your body, and prepare you for the day. Others say that the best time is whenever you can fit it into your busy schedule. Some love to use it as a midday reset at lunchtime, while others swear it’s the best thing ever to unwind in the evening after a stressful day at work.

Practice, Practice, Practice

One thing everyone agrees on: once you begin, it’s important to practice regularly. Tai Chi isn’t likely to benefit you mentally or physically if you practice only once in a while. Start off with one or two classes a week and see how you like it. Try to practice a little in the morning, just to see how it makes you feel. After a couple of months, you’ll find out how, and how often, Tai Chi fits into your life, and more importantly, your long-term recovery plan.

A final note: if you have joint problems, especially pain or stiffness in your knees, consult a physician before beginning Tai Chi, or any new exercise program.