Tai Chi Chuan in Drug and Alcohol Addiction Recovery in China

All over the world, addiction to drugs and alcohol affects a certain number of the population and a wide variety of treatments are available. While there is no agreed-upon definition of the word addiction, it nearly always involves a user being compelled to use a substance no matter what the cost; be it financial, health-related or emotional pain caused to the addict and others around him. This compulsion usually comes from withdrawal symptoms which can vary in severity but in the case of alcoholism and addiction to hard drugs, is usually very painful.

A Westerner and an Asian man smoking opium in French Indochina in 1930.

Treating Drug and Alcohol Abuse

From around the seventeenth century, China had a particular problem with opium addiction which intensified severely around a hundred years later when foreign countries such as Britain and France forced the trade on them. However, they have been treating addiction and recognising its symptoms for much longer than that. In fact, they have had treatments that focus on correcting the mindset of patients for at least two thousand years through Buddhist teachings and bringing the forces of Yin and Yang back into balance.

Some experts suggest going cold turkey to get a drug or substance out of the system is the best way to be rid of the habit but most medical experts today agree that a gradual weaning accompanied with a substitute drug, such as methadone withdrawal treatment for heroin abuse, should be used alongside a program that offers some sort of inner healing or self-awareness.

These types of teaching methods seek to treat the root cause of the problem and can come in many forms. In the West, the most well-known is the Twelve Steps Program, advocated by the charity Alcoholics Anonymous, which requires participants to admit their faults, atone for them and use prayer and meditation to help bring about spiritual awakening.

In China since the 1920s, Yang Cheng-Fu’s style of Tai Chi Chuan has offered a way for the addict to explore their own inner workings to help them try to determine why they turned to drugs and alcohol in the first place. This can help bring harmony into the addict’s life through physical exercises that serve to fill the emotional gaps that are usually the root cause of the problem.

It also utilises breathing exercises and meditation to train the mind, control the body and bring about a more positive outlook on life in general helping the patient get free from substance abuse, and stay that way. While this can be an effective way to combat serious addiction, it should be done alongside other treatments as prescribed by a medical practitioner.

Yang Cheng-Fu (left) practising Tai Chi Chuan with a student in 1931.

How Tai Chi Chuan Can Replace Drug Addiction

Drugs work by releasing brain chemicals and enzymes into the body that make the user feel good by mimicking and amplifying the brain’s natural reward system. In the 1920s, Yang Cheng-Fu’s style of Tai Chi Chuan became popular amongst recovering opium addicts as a method to give the body these chemicals in a more natural way.

Once the drug is out of the system and the initial part of the problem, the physical dependency, has passed, Tai Chi Chuan has been shown to provide the brain with the chemicals it needs to combat the physiological dependency. It also gives the recovering addict a new lease of life and most find themselves with a new feeling of consistent energy and motivation that helps them get their lives back in order.

The physical exercises involved will help reverse the effects of withdrawal by giving a more beneficial release of endorphins in the early stages of recovery. For example, while stretching the spine, serotonin can be released which is known to bring on a feeling of satisfaction and a general sense of well-being and by twisting the spine, the internal organs literally get rinsed out, which aids in detoxification.

However with the use of physical workouts alone, once the patient reaches the limit of the amount of exercise he is able to do, the mental stimulation will decline causing him to either go back to craving the old drug or in some cases to become addicted to exercise itself. This is where the breathing and meditation aspects offered by Tai Chi Chuan come in as the mental and physical stimulation they provide is much more permanent.

A Chinese man smoking in a Chinese opium den, c.1920.

By providing the recovering addict with new ways to get a heightened sense of well-being, disciplines like Tai Chi Chuan can serve as a way to replace addiction with a healthier way to change a person’s mental state of mind. Many find it very helpful when used as a part of a person’s recovery though advice from a medical expert should always be obtained when going through any kind of withdrawal from addictive substances.

Written by Andrew Griffiths – Last updated 19/05/2023. To see more of my work you can visit my Sample Page and to learn more about the history of Tai Chi Chuan, you can visit my sister site, the History of Fighting.

To get history articles like this on your site, please feel free to contact me for a consultation.  


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Recovery Quote

Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly. 

~ Zen proverb ~

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