T’ai Chi is a Chinese exercise system that uses slow, smooth body movements to achieve a state of relaxation of both body and mind.
Originally developed in China as a form of self-defense, tai chi is a graceful form of exercise that has existed for some 2,000 years. Like other practices that bring mind and body together, tai chi can reduce stress. During tai chi, you focus on movement and breathing. This combination creates a state of relaxation and calm. Stress, anxiety and tension should melt away as you focus on the present, and the effects may last well after you stop your tai chi session.
Anyone, regardless of age or physical ability, can practice tai chi. It doesn’t take physical prowess. Rather, tai chi emphasizes technique over strength.
Recent years scientifically researches suggesting that tai chi may offer numerous other benefits beyond stress reduction, including:
- Reduce stress, anxiety and depression
- Increase flexibility
- Improve muscle strength and definition
- Improving balance and coordination
- Reducing the number of falls
- Improving sleep quality, such as staying asleep longer at night and feeling more alert during the day
- Slowing bone loss in women after menopause
- Lowering blood pressure
- Improving cardiovascular fitness
- Relieving chronic pain
- Improving everyday physical functioning
A person practicing tai chi moves her body in a slow, relaxed, and graceful series of movements. In tai chi, each movement flows into the next. The entire body is always in motion, with the movements performed gently and at uniform speed.
In addition to movement, two other important elements in tai chi are breathing and meditation. Practitioners believe that this breathing and meditation have many benefits, such as:
- Massaging the internal organs.
- Aiding the exchange of gases in the lungs.
- Helping the digestive system work better.
- Increasing calmness and awareness.
- Improving balance.
Certain concepts from Chinese philosophy were important in tai chi’s development (although not every person who practices tai chi for health purposes, especially in the West, learns or uses them). A few are as follows:
- A vital energy called qi underlies all living things.
- Qi flows in people through specific channels called meridians.
- Qi is important in health and disease.
- Tai chi is a practice that supports, unblocks, and redirects the flow of qi.
Another concept in tai chi is that the forces of yin and yang. A major theory is that health is achieved through balancing yin and yang and disease is caused by an imbalance leading to a blockage in the flow of qi. In Chinese philosophy, yin and yang are two principles or elements that make up the universe and everything in it and that also oppose each other. Yin is believed to have the qualities of water–such as coolness, darkness, stillness, and inward and downward directions–and to be feminine in character. Yang is believed to have the qualities of fire–such as heat, light, action, and upward and outward movement–and to be masculine. In this belief system, people’s yin and yang need to be in balance in order for them to be healthy, and tai chi is a practice that supports this balance.
Many people practice tai chi for health purposes. In the United States, a 2002 national survey on Americans’ use of CAM found that 1.3 percent of the 31,000 survey participants had used tai chi for health reasons in the year before the survey. Tai chi is widely practiced in China (including in its hospitals and clinics) and in other countries with a substantial native-Chinese population. In Asia, many people consider tai chi to be the most beneficial exercise for older people, because it is gentle and can be modified easily if a person has health limitations.
Tai chi exercises muscles in areas of your body that may have been neglected for a while. Therefore, you may feel sore in the beginning. It takes time to develop the posture, flexibility and agility needed for tai chi, so don’t get discouraged. As with any exercise program, safety is affected by proper stretching and warm-up exercises, as well as correct alignment.