Just as a balanced meal nourishes your body with the proper proportions of fresh veggies, lean protein and whole grains, the ancient Chinese practice of tai chi helps improve your health with its own beneficial combination of strength training, flexibility work and meditation. Studies have shown that tai chi’s health benefits range from stress reduction to improved balance to immune system support to better quality of life during medical treatment and more.
What Is Tai Chi?
This ancient Chinese martial art, also known as tai chi chuan, matches deep breathing and mental focus with standing postures, controlled movements and gentle stretches that are performed slowly, one into the next, so that the body is in a constant state of motion while the mind remains calm. You’ve likely seen people elegantly practicing tai chi in groups at the park, in fitness studios or maybe even standing by themselves in their front yard.
Many separate stances together make up a 20-45 minute “form,” which is performed like a meditative dance with one position flowing gracefully into the next. Tai chi practitioners believe that this series of specific stances cultivate and mobilize qi (energy) and restore harmony in the body. If your qi is abundant and free-flowing, then you feel at peace and restored. Qi blockages at various points in the body, on the other hand, can lead to pain, depression and illness. Tai chi draws on the principles of yin and yang, the opposing elements of the universe that strive for balance.
Health Benefits of Tai Chi
One of the most studied forms of movement therapy, tai chi has generated a large body of research. Here, a sampling of some notable findings on these health benefits of the practice:
- Improves Balance: In one study, people who did tai chi twice-weekly experienced improved stability and fewer falls than those who did not practice. Some experts think that tai chi might improve nerve signaling in the body, which may help keep people steady on their feet.
- Promotes Flexibility: Eight weeks of tai chi classes, followed by the same amount of home practice, significantly improved the ease of movement and ability to bend in people with ankylosing spondylitis (a form of arthritis that affects the spine), notes a Korean study.
- Soothes Joint Aches: The severity of joint pain and stiffness in people with osteoarthritis, according to one study, were noticeably reduced over the course of three months of tai chi practice. Experts suspect that tai chi helps these issues by improving range of motion.
- Strengthens Muscles and Improves Bone Density: In a Japanese study, 113 older adults were assigned to different 12-week exercise programs: tai chi, brisk walking and resistance training. Those who did tai chi boosted their lower body strength by at least 30 percent and improved their arm strength by 25 percent—gains that exceeded that of the walkers and almost equaled that of the resistance training group.
- Encourages Sleep: In one study that compared people practicing tai chi to a group doing low-impact exercise, all who reported mild sleep complaints, everyone experienced sleep improvement and a reduction in daytime grogginess—but those who did tai chi reported that they nodded off about 20 minutes faster at night than those in the other group.
- Boosts Medical Concentration: Tai chi trains you to think about what you’re doing in the here and now, both in your practice and when you move on to the rest of your day. Many who practice tai chi report that this helps you hone deliberate focus that can make you a better listener, improve your ability to thwart distractions at work and more.
- Supports Medical Treatment: In a study done at the University of Rochester, women with breast cancer who did tai chi for 12 weeks rated their quality of life higher than a group of peers who didn’t do tai chi; they also scored higher on functional tests (aerobic capacity, muscular strength, flexibility).
For more information about the health benefits of tai chi, visit Master Yang’s website at www.centerfortaiji.com.
Practicing Tai Chi
You can practice tai chi in your living room, on a beach, in your backyard or wherever you are comfortable. Many health clubs, community centers and gyms offer tai chi, and you can also purchase DVDs to help guide your practice.
Most tai chi sessions begin with a short warm-up where you will gently roll your shoulders, turn your head from side to side and practice breath work. You then execute a series of stances—without pausing in between them, much like a yoga flow practice—that are named for animal actions. For example, in a move called “white crane spreads its wings,” both of your feet stay on the ground but your weight shifts to one foot while one hand touches your body. Each move has variations depending on which of the many different styles of tai chi you are practicing. Throughout the stances, you will breathe deeply and focus your concentration on how your body feels.
In general, the movements of tai chi are circular. Your joints will never be fully extended or bent at sharp angles, and your muscles will be relaxed. This gentleness is one of the wonderful things about tai chi—it allows almost anyone to do it. Whether you are overweight, older or dealing with a medical condition, chances are tai chi will feel soothing and doable—especially because the moves can be modified to accommodate most limitations. (Still, if you are managing a health concern, be sure to get clearance from your physician before starting tai chi.)
If you are already physically active, you may want to consider tai chi as a therapeutic and relaxing change of pace from your usual workouts. It can offer your body a break from pounding the pavement and present you with a chance to slow down, practice introspection and be mindful of how your body feels and moves.