Managing Stress with Eastern Arts

by John Cowell | Date Released : 15 Feb 2008
Aug 3, 2018

If you haven’t noticed by now, stress is everywhere. The way your clients perform and respond to your exercise programs will depend on their ability to cope with stress.

In my own personal research, I have found that many of the top strength and conditioning facilities are monitoring stress levels of their athletes through adrenal stress tests. This is actually a very simple process, and the information gathered with this test is the cornerstone of any strength and conditioning program. Typically, the results of such tests are given in a graph as well as hard numbers that correspond to statistical norms. These are always nice to have for a couple of reasons: they will dispel any doubts your client may have, and you will be able to easily monitor success.

The only real way to monitor stress levels is through a 24-hour saliva test. In this test, the subject submits saliva into a vial at specific times of the day. Usually, the subject is required to make this submission four or more times a day with each submission in its own vial. The test is designed to measure hormone levels in the saliva at various times in the day (for more, see my article on circadian rhythms, under "related articles" at right). A great web site for locating laboratories that do saliva testing and a list of doctors familiar with the test is It is best to get help with these clients at first.

Once you have successfully identified your client's stress response cycle, you are now ready to help them heal themselves. This is where holistic knowledge of stress management is essential, in the forms of Qigong, Tai Chi and yoga.


Pronounced “chee-gung,” Qigong is a 3,000 year old system of self-healing developed by the Chinese. It is a gentle exercise that combines breathing, movement, posture and mental energy in a process designed to balance and unify the body, mind and spirit. Qigong is based on “Chi” or lifeforce/internal energy. “Qi” naturally flows throughout the human body, and it is this idea that lifeforce flows through the entire body that is the cornerstone of Chinese medicine, martial arts, acupuncture and medicine. “Gong” is loosely translated as “work” or “effort.” By channeling this energy, it may be used for stress management or virtually anything else for that manner. There are millions of people worldwide who practice Qigong who serve as empirical evidence for its power.

The Chinese practice Qigong daily to help a variety of diseases including but not exclusive to chronic pain, diabetes, cancer and high blood pressure. Furthermore, possibly the most important aspect of Qigong is that it involves the whole person unlike Western medicine, which typically treats only the disease. After one case study involving a man with multiple maladies, all of which were improved after an intensive Qigong workshop, the investigators concluded that the simultaneous recovery from so many conditions and symptoms could not be explained by known medical theory.

According to the Chinese, good health stems from well-balanced qi that flows freely. When qi is not in harmony, physical and mental disease results. Qigong uses the mind, breath and movement to restore the flow of qi to a healthy balance. The focus of Qigong is improving one’s ability to access, use and move qi throughout the body. There are thousands of Qigong exercises, and different exercises may focus on certain body parts or achieve a specific purpose.

Qigong can be learned through books and videos or from a teacher. In the beginning, it is recommended to find a qualified Qigong instructor. There are no national standards for Qigong instructors, so do your research. Learn about your (potential) instructor’s background. Is he or she a member of any national or international Qigong organizations? Has he or she trained with a well known Qigong master? How established is the practice of the instructor?

A typical Qigong class might start with a gentle warm up, followed by Qigong exercises. The Qigong exercises consist of movements, breathing techniques and visualization techniques, ending with deep relaxation.

Tai Chi

Tai Chi (Chuan) is a very similar form of exercise with many similar benefits. It is generally considered to be less simple and less specific than Qigong. Tai Chi is a series of movements that are either performed slowly for health and healing or quickly for self defense. The Chinese characters for Tai Chi Chuan can be translated as the "Supreme Ultimate Force." The notion of "supreme ultimate" is often associated with the Chinese concept of ying-yang, the notion that one can see a dynamic duality (male/female, active/passive, dark/light, forceful/yielding, etc.) in all things. "Force" (or more literally, "fist") can be thought of here as the means or way of achieving this yin-yang, or "supreme ultimate" discipline.

Tai Chi, as it is practiced in the West today, can perhaps best be thought of as a moving form of yoga and meditation combined. There are a number of so called forms (sometimes also called "sets") that consist of a sequence of movements. Many of these movements are originally derived from the martial arts (and perhaps even more ancestrally than that, from the natural movements of animals and birds), although the way they are performed in Tai Chi is slowly, softly and gracefully with smooth and even transitions between them.

For many practitioners, the focus in doing them is not, first and foremost, martial but as a meditative exercise for the body. For others, the combat aspects of Tai Chi are of considerable interest. In Chinese philosophy and medicine, there exists the concept of "chi," a vital force that animates the body. One of the avowed aims of Tai Chi is to foster the circulation of this "chi" within the body. The belief is that by doing so, the health and vitality of the person are enhanced. This "chi" circulates in patterns that are closely related to the nervous and vascular system and thus the notion is closely connected with that of the practice of acupuncture and other oriental healing arts.

Another aim of Tai Chi is to foster a calm and tranquil mind, focused on the precise execution of these exercises. Learning to do them correctly provides a practical avenue for learning about such things as balance, alignment, fine scale motor control, rhythm of movement, the genesis of movement from the body's vital center and so on. Thus, the practice of Tai Chi can in some measure contribute to being able to better stand, walk, move, run, etc. in other spheres of life as well. Many practitioners notice benefits in terms of correcting poor postural, alignment or movement patterns that may contribute to tension or injury. Furthermore, the meditative nature of the exercises is intrinsically calming and relaxing.    

Because the Tai Chi movements have their origins in the martial arts, practicing them does have some martial applications. In a two person exercise called "push hands," Tai Chi principles are developed in terms of being sensitive to and responsive of another person's "chi" or vital energy. It is also an opportunity to employ some of the martial aspects of Tai Chi in a kind of slow-tempo combat. Long time practitioners of Tai Chi who are so inclined can become very adept at martial arts. The emphasis in Tai Chi is on being able to channel potentially destructive energy (in the form of a kick or a punch) away from one in a manner that will dissipate the energy or send it in a direction where it is no longer a danger.      

Tai Chi also has a long connection with the I Ching a Chinese system of divination, particularly among Eastern practitioners. There are associations between the eight basic I Ching trigrams plus the five elements of Chinese alchemy (metal, wood, fire, water and earth) with the 13 basic postures of Tai Chi created by Chang San-feng. There are also other associations with the full 64 trigrams of the I Ching and other movements in the Tai Chi form.  


Yoga is the oldest system of personal development in the world encompassing the entire body. By definition, yoga is a means of joining. It is the union between a person’s own consciousness and the universal consciousness. Yoga combines breathing, meditation and exercise as a means to unify the mind and body.      

Breath control is used to improve health, and the exercise is designed to control the glandular system. Once the mind is properly prepared by exercise and breath, it is ready for meditation. The achievement of a quiet mind is essential for freedom of stress and able body. Yoga is composed of five principles, and there are six branches. The principles are relaxation, exercise, breathing, nutrition and meditation. The six branches of Yoga, Hatha, Bhakti, Raja, Jnana, Karma and Tantra. For all purposes, these branches and principles should not be looked at as mutually exclusive as each has an important role in this entire process. This process is really quite simple. Consider your client, the stressed out office employee. With yoga, his first step is to become relaxed. Because stress is positively correlated to disease, relaxation must be the first step in restoring energy. Breathing exercises (pranayama) and meditation/visualization are cornerstones to relaxation. What follows next are the Asanas or postures of yoga. These are designed to help balance the mind and body by multiple processes.

First, they increase blood flow. Second, the postures are designed to apply pressure on organs and glands, creating a massage effect. Finally, the breathing and visualization assist in energy direction. Furthermore, by assisting in and maintaining proper spinal range of motion, nerve supply to the body is optimized.

Behavior Modification

From the aforementioned strategies of stress and lifestyle management, many of the practices in Western society were born. At any major bookseller, one can find a plethora of self help books discussing various protocols for stress reduction and management. Typically, this is a three step process. Each step has many components, but the foundation remains. These steps are: Change your thinking, change your behavior and change your lifestyle. They do not need to be followed in that particular order. In fact, I have personally seen many clients not be able to change their thinking until they changed their behavior. Sometimes, the cart has to go in front of the horse, but for simplicity, I will discuss each in the presented order.

For an individual to change his thinking, typically a lot of repetitive work is involved. Eastern philosophers of yoga certainly recognized this in their methods of meditation. Now Western therapists use the same techniques. Learning a new way of thinking is akin to any learning experience. Practice, practice, practice. Your clients have to tell themselves how they want to think over and over again. If they want to be relaxed when they are stressed, then they need to tell themselves that they are relaxed, and they need to visualize their own relaxation.

An important notation is something I learned from Paul Chek: “Only perfect practice makes perfect.” Make sure when your clients are practicing thought process modification, they do not allow themselves to get distracted. Distraction allows the cleansing waters to become muddy. One technique to remedy this is to visualize and speak out loud (your client may want to do this in private!). If your client becomes distracted, then his speech will be altered. It is almost impossible to think about one thing and talk about another.

Behavior modification is easier than thought management in that the evidence as such is, well, evident. Either your client has changed or he has not. However, the process can be very difficult. Ask any smoker who is trying to quit. It’s easy to tell, though, the smoker who is successful in his efforts to quit: he doesn’t smoke anymore.

There are five categories to behavior modification: be assertive, time management/organization, ventilation, humor and diversion/distraction. When your client is beginning a behavior modification process, the first stem is to recognize that he is responsible for his behavior. One has to know how he got into a mess to get out of a mess. If your client accepts the responsibility of the problematic behavior, he then has the power to change the behavior. Be warned, however, that this is a very, very difficult process for most people. I strongly suggest you get help from a qualified, licensed therapist with this.

Finally, there is lifestyle management. In many ways, lifestyle management is a hybrid of thinking and behavior modification. It also most closely mirrors the philosophies outlined in Qigong, Tai Chi and yoga. For example, when your client begins eating according to his metabolic type and drinking adequate amounts of water, life will likely become more manageable.

Some final words on stress management and its associated strategies: don’t let your clients let their strategies become sources of stress. More than once, I have had to explain to a client that these are guidelines for when they became stressed because they, for instance, woke up late and could not meditate one morning. Also, you as the hired fitness professional need to walk the walk. If you are not a testament to your own teachings, your clients will see the insincerity in your eyes and failure is certain. Be able to show them how well your theories work!


  1. Chen KW and Turner FD.  A case study of simultaneous recovery from multiple physical symptoms with medical qigong therapy.  J Altern Compliment Med.  2004 Feb; 10(1):  159-62.