The Link Between Individuality And Health

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The October 9 issue of The Week reports that during this month's gigantic celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic, more than 1000 Chinese soldiers sought mental health counseling after drilling for the event.

Why? Because the training sessions required microscopic levels of coordination between the soldiers (limited blinking, holding their rifles at precisely the same level etc.) for a satisfying visual effect.

Readers may remember the same sort of painstaking choreography during the opening ceremonies of last year's Beijing Olympic games, especially during the martial arts segment, when thousands of practitioners in flowing robes moved in unison across the world's stage to demonstrate tai chi, the crown jewel of Chinese martial arts and culture.

Supporters of communist ideology may lionize the subjugation of the individual to the greater good (usually, unfortunately, for the benefit of the ruling few) but it turns out that such a high level of conformity in public performances isn't very good for one's health. In addition to the physical rigors of simultaneously monitoring one's one movements, the mental effort of trying to maintain awareness of what everyone else is doing--at least at the level required of the soldiers in the anniversary celebration--can be a source of debilitating stress.

Every dancer or performer knows this kind of work has its challenges, and every soldier knows the far worse consequences combat can bring, but marrying this kind of external focus to the practice of tai chi flies in the face of the very purpose of the art, which is to bring our focus inward. Tai chi practice is a laboratory for the exploration of our internal world, a place where we can test the relationship between mind and body in the context of exercises that follow the Daoist principles underlying the art. We know these principles as "don't meet force with force" and "go with the flow," but a principle that is lesser known, despite tai chi's much vaunted balance benefits, is the notion of keeping one's wuji, or personal equilibrium.

As our world grows speedier, greedier and more crowded, the pressure to conform increases. Wittingly or not, intentionally or not, each and every one of us is caught up in a web of external circumstances. We look around for cues for everything from what to eat and how to dress to what opinions to hold and how to prioritize our lives. Some of this learning is constructive, but much of it is not, primarily because the external noise of conformity drowns out the voice of our own intuition - the subconscious guide to our own true north.

The practice of mindful arts such as tai chi, meditation and yoga has as a central benefit the power to focus our attention inward, to draw us down and out of the flood of external stimuli and into a world where our thoughts, our heartbeat, our physical alignment and the rhythm of our breath are the most significant markers. These practices are the consummate expression of our individuality. Nobody could fail to be moved by the spectacle of the opening Olympic ceremony or impressed by the People's Republic founding anniversary celebration, but when a mind-body practice is turned into entertainment it loses its healing power.

Certainly there can be great value in coordinating effort with others as well as honing our sensitivity to those around us, and much has been made of the joys and benefits of altruism and compassion, but to best contribute to the planet and society--as well as to enjoy optimum health--we must heed our intuition and keep our emotional and physical balance. There's no better way to do this than with a daily mind-body practice done not for the crowd, but for you, in all your individual glory.