A technique that integrates body, mind and spirit, tai chi (pronounced tie-chee ) has been practiced for centuries in China . Tai chi means “grand ultimate” and implies “the balance of opposing forces of nature.” The traditional training is intended to teach awareness of one’s own balance, both physical and mental.
Tai chi, also known as t’ai chi ch’uan, began as a martial art, but today it’s most frequently practiced for its health benefits and meditative properties. It has become a popular exercise for millions of Chinese and is especially popular among older people.
Tai chi was introduced to the United States in the mid 1960s. Now it’s hard to find an exercise center that doesn’t offer classes. People all over the world practice tai chi every day. According to a 2007 National Health Survey, about 2.3 million Americans had practiced tai chi in the preceding 12 months.
Tai chi is performed as a series of slow, graceful, controlled body movements while your body remains straight and upright. It includes stepping, shifting weight and rotating. Throughout the session, your breathing becomes deep, yet relaxed. Tai chi movements have been compared to those performed in yoga and ballet.
Stories abound about the origins of tai chi. According to one of the most popular legends, tai chi’s motions are based on those of a snake. A martial arts master named Chang San-feng dreamed about a battle between a snake and a crane during which he noted the snake’s graceful fighting movements. Those movements inspired the development of the noncombative style of tai chi.
Tai chi is a low-impact activity. One key principle (which comes from Taoism) is wu-wei(or the action of nonaction), which refers to going with the flow—not forcing things.
Like acupuncture, tai chi is based on the concept of chi (pronounced chee), the vital life energy that sustains health and calms the mind. Chi courses through your body through specific pathways or meridians. The traditional explanation is that the practice of tai chi improves health by improving the flow of chi, thereby restoring energy balance.
Chi must flow freely for good health; blocked chi can lead to illness or disease. All forms of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) aim to restore energy balance and conserve the body’s chi or life vitality. This health system includes the practices of acupuncture, massage, herbal medicine and tai chi’s sister healing art, qigong(pronounced chee gong ).
Modern researchers are finding amazing health benefits from tai chi. Regular practice builds strength, enhances muscle tone and circulation and improves balance,flexibility, posture, coordination and range of motion. Some studies also show that tai chi can lower blood pressure and heart rate, as well as ease arthritis pain. It can also help prevent osteoporosis, making it particularly beneficial to women, and reduce the incidence of falls. In addition, tai chi reduces stress, improves concentration and increases energy.
Unlike many types of exercise, tai chi is accessible to people of any age and condition—children, senior citizens and even people who use walkers. It requires no special clothes or equipment, and it can easily be practiced at home. Some modified forms of tai chi can be practiced by individuals with limited mobility. In fact, tai chi is particularly beneficial to the elderly and people with impaired motor skills. Because tai chi emphasizes correct posture and balance, the exercise may be a safer alternative for women with frail bones than other physical activities.
Medical science remains unclear about exactly how tai chi works. While several studies have documented its benefits, none have completely explained why or how it works—at least in the context of Western medicine. But there are theories. While traditional practitioners might attribute the health benefits to the free flow of chi, Western-world scientific research into tai chi is finding other possible explanations for its beneficial effects. For instance:
- Deep breathing promotes relaxation, stress reduction and concentration.
- Focused attention not only relaxes the body and mind, it helps cultivate mental alertness.
- The exercises strengthen muscles and bones (For instance, as a weight-bearing exercise that requires you to support your weight while standing, tai chi is a good preventive measure for osteoporosis.)
- Since most of the movements involve alternating weight-bearing in the legs, tai chi helps cultivate better balance by improving coordination and control of the body during movements.
Anyone can benefit from tai chi—like most low-impact exercises, it can be an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Tai chi isn’t a treatment or a cure, but health care professionals often suggest it as a complementary therapy for many conditions.
Few randomized controlled studies (the scientific standard for determining treatment efficacy) have so far been conducted to establish the direct medical benefits of tai chi, but some preliminary studies suggest that tai chi can help relieve the symptoms of or prevent certain conditions. Tai chi is considered useful in:
- Reducing the risk of falls in the elderly by improving balance and strength as well as confidence.
- Improving cardiopulmonary function.
- Reducing blood pressure.
- Reducing stress.
- Helping to strengthen the muscles around an arthritic joint, improving flexibility and range of motion while reducing joint pain. Stronger muscles also help protect the joint from soft tissue injuries.
- Easing back pain by improving flexibility.
- Slowing the decline in respiratory function, often a concern among the elderly. Plus, the regular exercise afforded by the practice—comparable to a low-impact aerobicworkout—provides cardiorespiratory conditioning.
- Stimulating circulation, improving blood flow to the extremities and its return to the heart.
- Improving health-related quality of life in the elderly.
- Helping speed recovery after a heart attack. Tai chi is sometimes used as an adjunct therapy in cardiac rehabilitation. One reason for its benefit may be its ability to reduce blood pressure and heart rate.
- Helping people with multiple sclerosis increase their physical activity and functioning by enhancing muscle tone, flexibility, coordination and general well-being. Some chapters of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society now offer tai chi classes.
- Helping to slow or prevent bone loss since it’s a weight-bearing exercise.
- Reducing the amount of stress hormones in the body.
- Improving glucose control in people with type 2 diabetes.
It’s important to remember, however, that although tai chi may help prevent and manage a number of conditions, it isn’t a cure for everything. You need to continue seeing your regular health care professional for any underlying health problems. And always check with your health care professional before beginning a new exercise plan.
If you’re new to tai chi, it’s best to start with a class, although you’ll still need to practice the exercises on your own. A daily practice of 15 to 20 minutes seems to be the ideal; many tai chi masters advise practicing upon wakening and before going to sleep.
But other configurations—such as 30 minutes a day four times a week—also yield benefits. The key is to do it regularly. All you need to do tai chi is a few feet of space with a flat surface, comfortable clothes and a commitment. You may not see immediate results, however; it could take several weeks of practice before you start to notice changes in your health.
Finding an Instructor
Tai chi teachers are not necessarily medical professionals, and they do not have to be licensed, but it is important to find a certified teacher who can reflect his or her experience in the practice. The American Tai Chi and Qiqong Association has a searchable database of its members.
You shouldn’t have much trouble finding classes. Your local recreation center, YMCA/YWCA or martial arts school can probably point you in the right direction. If you have multiple sclerosis or arthritis, your local association may sponsor classes at a reduced rate. And some cities have tai chi schools. Finally, your health care professional may be able to offer some suggestions.
A variety of styles or schools of tai chi have evolved, reflecting both growth and development of the form in general as well as differences of style among different teachers. Elements from other martial arts forms have influenced tai chi, and this has changed its character as well.
Most of the styles or schools of tai chi have been given the surnames of their founders. There are many styles that exist today, the most popular being:
- Yang Style
- Chen Style
- Sun Style
- Wu Style
Before you sign up for a class (many run in eight- to 10-week sessions lasting one hour each), you may want to sit in on a session or two to make sure you will be comfortable. Consider class size, the instructor’s relationship with the pupils and the level of mastery the class seems to show. If you prefer one-on-one classes, individual training often is available. Prices vary widely.
The First Class
After a warm-up, your instructor will teach you the various movements involved in tai chi. You’ll move slowly and gracefully, and your instructor will help you with the deep, relaxed breathing.
The movements or positions have names like Pay Respect to Buddha, Grasp the Bird’s Tail, Carry Tiger to the Mountain and White Crane Spreads Wings. Each sequence involves a series of positions that flow into one fluid set pattern or form with a defined beginning and end. A single form includes many positions; each form generally takes a few minutes to complete. It may be hard to remember all the movements at first but, with practice, you will catch on. You learn through repetition.
In a class, you may perform several forms or just one. You may start out in a basic position: feet parallel and shoulder-width apart, knees bent slightly, head slightly lifted, spine straight and arms loosely at your sides. Motions generally begin at the waist; your focus will remain in that general vicinity, too. The area of the body located about two inches below the navel is known as your lower tan tien, your center of movement. In Chinese medicine, it’s considered the center of the body’s chi. And breathing is an important part of tai chi. Your teacher will coach you: Don’t hold your breath!
You won’t undergo a strenuous workout in a tai chi class—it won’t be like aerobics, for instance. It’s often been compared to slow, controlled dancing—along the lines of ballet. When you finish, you won’t feel exhausted, and unless it’s hot, you may not even perspire. You shouldn’t feel sore—if you do, chances are you aren’t doing it right. Talk to your instructor about your technique.
There are no ill effects to tai chi, so it can be an enhancement to any regular exercise regimen. And it shouldn’t interfere with any medications or medical treatments. As mentioned earlier, however, it’s always advisable to check with your health care provider before embarking on any exercise program, particularly if you are out of shape, over 65 or have serious health problems. Also remember to inform your tai chi instructor if you have a medical condition or are under a health care professional’s treatment.
Facts to Know
- While you can buy books and videos about tai chi, the best way to learn is to attend a class and receive instruction first-hand from a certified instructor.
- Tai chi is particularly beneficial to women because it can help prevent osteoporosis and ease the symptoms of fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis, all of which strike more women than men.
- Ideally, tai chi should be practiced every day, or at the least, four times a week.
- Several studies show that tai chi enhances balance and reduces the risk of falls among the elderly.
- Medical science remains unclear about how tai chi works, but studies performed in the United States and abroad demonstrate that it has practical health benefits.
- Tai chi can lower blood pressure and heart rate.
- Tai chi movements are taught step by step; eventually, all the steps become one continuous sequence or form.
- You may need to practice tai chi regularly for weeks before you see the health benefits. Daily practice is recommended.
- Tai chi and qigong are both modalities for health and healing from traditional Chinese culture.
- Tai chi is based on the concept of chi, the vital life energy that sustains health and calms the mind.
- My legs are weak, and I sometimes use a wheel chair. Can I do Tai Chi? Yes, but first check with your health care professional. You’ll be able to do all the upper body movements, and some of the leg motions can be adapted.
- Tai Chi seems so relaxing. Is it really a martial art? Yes. There are two basic types of martial arts: the hard martial arts and the soft (or internal) martial arts. The former includes karate and tae kwon do. Tai chi is a soft one, emphasizing relaxation—for many, it is a form of meditation. Nevertheless, tai chi movements, like those of other martial arts, are executed with careful precision and grace.
- Since practicing Tai Chi, my blood pressure has gone down. Can I go off my medicine? That’s something to ask your health care professional. Generally, though, tai chi is considered an adjunct therapy—one that works best in partnership with other approaches. Make sure you tell your health care professional if you are planning to try tai chi.
- My arthritis makes exercise painful. Why should I try Tai Chi? People with painful, stiff joints usually want to avoid exercise. But exercise actually keeps bones, muscles and joints healthy and as strong as possible. Tai chi is gentler than most exercises and can be modified to fit your special needs. Tai chi also helps strengthen the muscles around an arthritic joint, improves flexibility and increases range of motion; it may relieve some of your joint pain.
- If Tai Chi is rooted in Taoism, does that make it a religious practice? No. Tai chi is part of Taoism, a “natural science” rather than a religion. It is therefore compatible with any and all religions.
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