Stay Healthy with Tai Chi

Recanto Oriental - Tai Chi Chuan 2013-06-23

Tai chi is one of the most well-known and popular exercise forms in China. Originally a variety of martial arts, tai chi utilizes breathing exercises and body postures that are performed in a slow, sequential pattern. These exercises are designed to improve alignment and balance while enhancing coordination and agility. Tai chi practitioners often report feeling greater inner peace and improved self-awareness after participating in this ancient art, and there are numerous health benefits that are associated with making tai chi a permanent part of your life.

History of Tai Chi

Tai chi is a centuries-old variety of Chinese martial arts, and it is descended from an ancient discipline known as qigong, which has roots in traditional Chinese medicine. This exercise is based on the belief of qi and yin and yang. Qi is an energy force that is thought to flow through the body, while yin and yang are opposing elements that are needed to be kept stable to keep the universe in harmony. By practicing tai chi, it is thought that the proper flow of qi can be encouraged while promoting a good yin-yang balance.

There are many different styles of tai chi, but the most commonly practiced today are the Chen, Wu, Yang, Woo, and Sun styles. Some people feel that the art was originally developed by a Taoist Priest in a Chinese temple within the Wu Dong Mountains. Legends state that he observed a white crane while it preyed on a snake and then mimicked the movements in order to create the unique tai chi style of martial arts.

Tai chi involves slow and continuous body movements that also incorporate meditative properties. The moves incorporate multiple motions that are named after animal actions, such as, “white crane spreads its wings.” Other movements will be named for martial arts techniques, and as you move, you will breathe naturally and deeply while focusing your attention on the sensations of your body.

Getting Started with Tai Chi

Tai Chi, Cannon Beach

If you are interested in trying tai chi, the best place to start would be with classes in your community. You will have an experienced instructor to assist you, and you’ll be part of a group that is working to improve their physical and emotional wellbeing. These classes may include a variety of components, including choreographed music, repetitive breathing, slow hand movements, and footwork based off of martial arts movements. You will also practice slow, mindful breathing and meditation in either the standing or sitting position.

While tai chi is a very safe exercise, there are a few tips that you may want to follow before getting started:

  • Check with your doctor . If you have pre-existing medical conditions, you should check with your physician before beginning tai chi or any exercise program.
  • Don’t be afraid of the language . You may find the terms used in tai chi to be intimidating at first, but your instructor will be available to help you.
  • Dress comfortably . You should arrive to class wearing loose-fitting garments that won’t restrict your movements, and you can practice either barefooted or in lightweight, flexible, and comfortable shoes.

Tai chi can be adapted for anyone, from extremely fit individuals to people who are recovering from surgery and confined to wheelchairs.

Tai Chi and Fitness

Tai chi is a gentle and slow workout, but it still addresses many major components of fitness. This activity is known to improve muscle strength, and a 2006 study found in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine found that tai chi students who took classes for 12 weeks showed improvement in both upper-body and lower-body strength. While you may not be working with weights, tai chi offers unsupported arm and lower extremity exercises that can improve the strength of the core muscles.

Tai chi is also known to improve balance and flexibility, and for older adults, this could lead to a reduction of falls. As we age, proprioception, or our ability to sense our body’s position in space, will decline. Tai chi works to train this sense, which is a product of inner ear sensory neurons and stretch receptors in ligaments and muscles. Improved flexibility and strength can also make it easier to recover if you stumble, which can allow seniors to catch themselves rather than falling.

Tai Chi Health Benefits

Mestre Yang Zhen Duo e Profa. Maria Angela - China

When combined with traditional medical treatment options, tai chi can be beneficial for the improvement of many medical conditions. While it is great for all ages, the health benefits are particularly advantageous for the elderly, and arthritis is one such problem that can be corrected. In fact, a 2008 study found that practicing tai chi for two hours per week over the course of 12 weeks improved physical functioning and mood for people battling severe knee arthritis. Another 2009 study found that tai chi classes worked to improve flexibility and lower the disease process of some of the most painful and debilitating types of arthritis, including ankylosing spondylitis.

Tai chi also offers numerous health benefits for the heart. National Taiwan University completed a study that found that a year of practicing tai chi significantly lowered blood pressure, improved cholesterol levels, and boosted the exercise capacity of participants. These improvements helped to lower a participant’s risk of developing heart disease. A study published in the Spring 2008 edition of Preventive Cardiology also found that tai chi lowered blood pressure in 85% of clinical trials.

Practicing tai chi has also shown benefits for people who are suffering from serious diseases. A 2008 study indicated that people with Parkinson’s disease that was mild to moderate in severity experienced improved well-being, walking ability, and balance after 20 sessions of tai chi. Women with breast cancer who participated in 12 weeks of tai chi were found to have improved functional capacity and quality of life, and people who began practicing tai chi after a stroke witnessed improvements with breathing and mobilizing joints and muscles for walking and sitting.