If you’ve ever tried to quit smoking, then you know it’s not easy. No matter how much you’ve heard about the dangers of inhaling nicotine, the urge to light up can overwhelm your resolve. You’re not the only one. According to the US Surgeon General, although 70 percent of smokers want to quit, only 35 percent try and a paltry 5 percent succeed.
A highly addictive habit—both physically and psychologically—cigarette smoking affects your heart, lungs, hormonal system, and brain, as well as your emotions and your stress level. If you’ve tried everything and still can’t quit, t’ai chi may provide the mind-body awareness you need to kick the habit for good.
The slow, graceful “dance” of t’ai chi, invented (according to legend) in the 16th century by a Chinese martial artist, has often been described as a moving meditation. Connecting the breath with a sequence of slow, deliberate movements or “forms,” which often get their names from birds or animals, helps circulate and manipulate qi (pronounced “chee”). According to Chinese medicine, this vital energy must flow unimpeded throughout the body for a person to experience optimal health.
How could t’ai chi help you quit smoking? If you use smoking to calm your nerves, t’ai chi provides a more healthful alternative. T’ai chi instructor Frank Juszczyk, PhD, a practitioner for more than 30 years, explains that t’ai chi “not only relieves anxiety but also, by the grounding and rooting of the body in association with prop-er body structure alignment, creates a strong sense of stability and inner confidence,” two potentially deciding factors in the fight against addiction.
T’ai chi also engages the whole person in the exercises, so you don’t have time to notice that you want a cigarette: Your mind concentrates completely on the flow and balance of the body; the breathing synchronizes the harmonious action of the arms and legs and allows qi to circulate throughout the system.
The conscious breath in t’ai chi practice can help regulate the respiratory system and lessen the severity of asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis—all of which can afflict smokers. In fact, a study conducted at National Taiwan University Hospital showed that oxygen uptake in patients practicing t’ai chi was significantly higher than in the sedentary control group.
Connecting the breath and the movements can also engage the parasympathetic nervous system to promote deep relaxation and calm the sympathetic nervous system to keep stress at bay.
A host of withdrawal symptoms—depression, dizziness, frustration, irritability, nervousness, trouble concentrating, and insomnia—often cause smokers to light up again. A regular t’ai chi practice can lessen those symptoms.
According to a study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, t’ai chi practitioners had “lower levels of depression and psychological distress” than the control group. Other studies point to t’ai chi’s ability to promote sound sleep, concentration, and a deep sense of calm.
You can find t’ai chi classes in most communities. Books and DVDs, such as those by Dr. Paul Lam or David Dorian-Ross, provide step-by-step instruction.