Just as a balanced meal nourishes your body with the proper portions of fresh veggies, lean protein and whole grains, the ancient Chinese practice of tai ch’i helps improve your health with its own beneficial combination of strength training, flexibility work and meditation. Studies have shown that tai ch’i’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 Ch’i?
This ancient Chinese martial art, also known as tai ch’i 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 ch’i 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 ch’i 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 ch’i draws on the principles of yin and yang, the opposing elements of the universe that strive for balance.
Health Benefits of Tai Ch’i
One of the most studied forms of movement therapy, tai ch’i 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 ch’i twice-weekly experienced improved stability and fewer falls than those who did not practice. Some experts think that tai ch’i might improve nerve signaling in the body, which may help keep people steady on their feet.
- Promotes Flexibility: Eight weeks of tai ch’i 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 ch’i practice. Experts suspect that tai ch’i 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 ch’i, brisk walking and resistance training. Those who did tai ch’i 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 ch’i 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 ch’i reported that they nodded off about 20 minutes faster at night than those in the other group.
- Boosts Mental Concentration: Tai ch’i 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 ch’i 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 ch’i for 12 weeks rated their quality of life higher than a group of peers who didn’t do tai ch’i; they also scored higher on functional tests (aerobic capacity, muscular strength, flexibility).
For more information about the health benefits of tai ch’i, visit Master Yang’s website at http://www.centerfortaiji.com.
Practicing Tai Ch’i
You can practice tai ch’i in your living room, on a beach, in your backyard or wherever you are comfortable. Many health clubs, community centers and gyms offer tai ch’i, and you can also purchase DVDs to help guide your practice.
Most tai ch’i 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 ch’i 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 ch’i 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 ch’i—it allows almost anyone to do it. Whether you are overweight, older or dealing with a medical condition, chances are tai ch’i 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 ch’i.)
If you are already physically active, you may want to consider tai ch’i 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. Lastly, if you find seated meditation difficult, physically or mentally, tai ch’i may be a mindful, low-impact movement practice that can simultaneously calm your mind.