What is tai chi?
Tai chi is a system of exercise that has been traditionally practiced in China for hundreds of years. Originally a form of martial arts, in recent decades tai chi has been embraced worldwide as a wellness practice that promotes health and relaxation. Because tai chi is a particularly gentle, meditative form of exercise, it is suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels.
Practicing tai chi involves carefully going through a series of slow, deliberate motions, while also paying attention to your breath. There are different schools or variants of tai chi, some of which emphasize the martial arts origins of the practice more than others. While doing tai chi, you are meant to stay in slow but constant motion, developing and maintaining a deep awareness of your body. This emphasis on focused awareness makes tai chi a form of meditation as well as exercise.
Tai chi can benefit practitioners in mind, body, and spirit. Some people use tai chi simply as a way to reduce stress and keep fit, while others pursue a deeper spiritual connection through their practice. Tai chi has origins in Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian philosophies such as the yin yang, which teaches that seemingly opposite forces are actually interconnected and united. A tai chi practice can be a method to help people experience that interconnection within themselves. In this way, tai chi is similar to yoga, another movement practice that has the ultimate goal of revealing the unity of mind and body.
How does tai chi work?
At its basic level, tai chi is a form of exercise that consists of going through different series of motions. You can learn tai chi in a class, from a private teacher, or through instructional videos. Tai chi can be practiced anywhere, and requires no special equipment, making it a versatile, useful option for lowering your stress and improving your fitness.
Philosophy and history
Tai chi was originally developed in China, and dates back at least several hundred years. Traditionally, many believe tai chi was created by the Taoist monk Zang Sanfeng in the 12th century. Zang may have developed tai chi to teach his fellow monks both as a means of their spiritual development and self-defense. Some historians, however, believe the practice is more modern and was established in its earliest form by Chen Wangting, a former general who lived in the 17th century, as a variation of another Chinese martial art, kung fu. The Chen school of tai chi that he founded remains popular today.
Tai chi is also descended from the ancient Chinese art of qi gong, a three-thousand-year-old practice that can teach you to control the flow of life force, or qi, through your body. Both tai chi and qi gong involve working with your breath and body, and are meant to help qi flow freely through you. However, qi gong is known for typically using very simple motions. Because tai chi began as a martial art, some of its movements are more complex—similar to forms or katas in other martial arts—and have self-defense applications.
The idea of balance and connection between forces is central to tai chi. This is exemplified by the Taoist symbol of the yin-yang, in which white and black halves of a circle make up a unified whole in which each contains a piece of the other. Tai chi practice can be a way of experiencing that balance and connection within yourself.
Another key principle of tai chi, which stems from its martial arts origins, is the idea of meeting force with softness, rather than hardening against it. Tai chi teaches that if you harden against force, as people typically do, you will likely get injured. But by softening to the force, you can safely stay with it until it is spent. This idea can be a guide to both tai chi practice itself, and to integrating the lessons of that practice to help you live a life of greater ease and peace.
Tai chi is as a practice predates modern scientific inquiry. While the spiritual and philosophical underpinnings of tai chi may be beyond the purview of science, contemporary researchers have begun to investigate how tai chi can affect the brain and body. This can be difficult because the many different interlocking elements of tai chi—such as movement, breathing, mindfulness, and the relationships between student, class, and teacher—can make isolating which aspect of tai chi does what impossible.
However, studies have found that tai chi may have a beneficial impact on a wide range of health conditions, as well as improve overall wellness, even if they cannot necessarily say why this is the case. Researchers at Harvard Medical School have suggested that because tai chi involves repeatedly going through complex sequences of motions with deliberate, focused attention, it may affect the brain in a manner similar to meditation. Meditation has been shown to result in beneficial changes to the structure of the brain when practiced over time.
Tai chi is often practiced as a series of connected movements, or forms. A tai chi form may involve anywhere from 20 to over 100 movements performed in sequence. The forms are meant to be practiced as slowly as possible. Exercising care and awareness while moving is as important as the actual movement itself, and maintaining mindfulness of breath and body is critical.
There are many different schools or versions of tai chi that have evolved over the centuries. The five main schools are Chen, Yang, Wu Hao, Wu and Sun. There are also offshoots or hybrids of the main schools. All schools trace their lineage back to shared historical and philosophical origins, but each school has distinct methods of teaching and practices their own forms.
What are the benefits of tai chi?
Tai chi can help your physical, mental and emotional health. It can also be a spiritual practice and means of developing a deeper sense of mind-body connection. The benefits of tai chi can include improvements to specific conditions or in general aspects of wellness. Many people find the effects of tai chi are cumulative: practicing tai chi regularly over a sustained period of time leads to more substantial, long-term benefits.
Tai chi for seniors and older adults
Traditional Chinese medicine teaches that tai chi can help slow the aging process. While there is little research on tai chi specifically, this perspective fits with a great deal of contemporary science supporting the anti-aging effects of exercise and the importance of maintaining physical and emotional health at any age. Tai chi is an especially good fit for seniors and older adults, because many of its slow, gentle movements do not require a high level of fitness or mobility to perform, yet can have a significant impact on wellness.
Other specific benefits of tai chi can include:
Improving arthritis symptoms
Tai chi has become a popular method of treating arthritis. Many people struggling with arthritis, who are no longer able to engage in more physically demanding forms of exercise, have found tai chi’s gentle movements to be a natural fit. Tai chi can help relieve pain, stress and improve balance in arthritis patients, as well as offer a way to maintain physical fitness.
Increasing muscle strength and flexibility
Tai chi can help you to become physically stronger. The slow, deliberate motions work with your muscles on a very deep level, challenging them differently than other strength-building activities. Tai chi can strengthen your upper body as well as your legs and core muscles. Tai chi can also help improve your flexibility and range of motion.
Because tai chi helps promote coordination and body awareness, it can help improve your balance. Strength, flexibility and reflexes are key components of balance, and tai chi develops all three. Tai chi exercises also help you to practice testing your balance in a safe way, as your feet move from position to position.
Reducing stress and improving emotional health
Tai chi can be a powerful way of lifting your mood. Exercise in any form can help lower your stress levels and release tension. However, tai chi’s particular emphasis on the mind-body connection means that you can also develop a deeper understanding of yourself, which can lead to feelings of well-being and peace. Tai chi can also reduce physical symptoms of stress: it can lower your heart rate, blood pressure and levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
Tai chi is frequently described as meditation in motion. For some people who have tried more traditional, seated meditation practices with little success, tai chi can be a great fit. The physicality of tai chi keeps you from growing too restless, while the emphasis on focus and concentration helps you develop the same ability to observe your mind that is sought in other forms of meditation.
Safety and side effects
Tai chi is a particularly safe form of exercise. While experts warn that anyone in poor health should consult a physician before trying tai chi, the practice is popular all over the world because it can be done by people of all ages and levels of fitness. Tai chi is very gentle, and a skilled instructor can help guide almost anyone through learning the basic forms.
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Easing Ills through Tai Chi
Nell Porter Brown
Harvard Magazine, 2016
The Health Benefits of Tai Chi
Harvard Women's Health Watch, 2015