What Is Tai Chi & How It Improves Your Physical and Mental Strength

Learn How This Gentle Ancient Practice Can Boost Your Overall Health

If you are seeking a low-impact exercise that is gentle on your body, but benefits your mind and spirit at the same time, you should definitely consider tai chi. Also known as ‘meditation in motion,’ this ancient Chinese moving art is based on martial arts and involves a powerful combination of easy and simple movements and specific breathing techniques. Everyone can practice it, from young adults to seniors, including healthy individuals and those with chronic issues.

In this article we will outline the fundamentals of tai chi (TC). We will explain how it works, different styles, motions, side effects and most importantly, its benefits, including benefits for seniors. Some advantages include improved sleep, reduced stress, better balance, increased strength, and pain relief. Overall, it attracts quite a lot of attention due to its ability to reduce symptoms of certain health conditions and its power to improve overall wellness. Continue reading to find out everything you need to know about this amazing ancient practice.

What Is Tai Chi?

Also known as tai chi chuan, tai chi quan, and taiji, this is an ancient Chinese practice, stemming from martial arts. Originally, it has been used as a self-defense technique, but in the last 100 years, it has been regarded as an ‘internal’ martial art. This is because it improves physical, mental, and spiritual health by making a flowing sequence of slow and gentle movements and postures. It is regularly practiced in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

When it comes to health issues, ancient Eastern medicine believes that poor health is a direct result of blockage of our life force “Qi” (pronounced “chee”) or a result of imbalanced yin and yang force (energy pathways, also called ‘meridians’). To restore the balance of meridians and to propel Qi flow, it is advised to practice tai chi with other techniques. Often referred to as ‘meditation in motion,’ these low-impact, mind-body-spirit exercises are performed without pausing in between. The transitions are supposed to progress slowly, without interruptions, while you are concentrating on breathing and bodily sensations.  This helps you reach a tranquil, meditative state and connectivity with your Qi.

Most moves are circular. During exercises, your muscles will never be tensed, but relaxed, and your joints will never be entirely extended.

What Is Tai Chi Good For – Major Health Benefits

There are countless physical, mental, psychological, emotional and spiritual advantages to practicing ‘taiji.’ Below, we have compiled the most remarkable benefits:

Reduces stress and anxiety

When it comes to anxiety and stress, this is a wonderful way to bring peacefulness and tranquility back into your life. Mindfulness is achieved by concentrating on your breathing and performing movements, which takes your mind off of other things that might be bothering you. You are present in the moment which relieves stress. One study of 50 people showed reduced stress levels after 12 weeks of practicing TC.

Minimizes symptoms of depression

Combined with traditional medicine and/or medication, it can help reduce symptoms of depression, which is one of the most common mental illnesses in the USA. For instance, adding 2 hours of tai chi every week can help normalize brain changes, feelings and behavior patterns.

Improves Mood

Your mood can be significantly improved, and you may become happier, if you exercise regularly. Certain scientific studies show that TC can minimize symptoms of depression. And here’s how. Focused and controlled breathing and relaxed moves regulate the hormonal imbalance and positively impact your nervous system but also regulate your hormones.

Increases muscle strength

There are several studies proving this statement.  A study from 2014 showed that lower-body strength can be increased in 4 months with frequent practice (6 times a week). Another research showed that significant improvement in muscle strength of both upper and lower body can be achieved if TC is combined with resistance training.

Promotes good body posture

Poor body alignment can cause imbalance, but also painful issues, such as back pain, knee pain, neck pain. In tai chi, good posture is achieved by concentrating on spine, pelvic area, and feet. This is a safe and natural way to prevent pain and poor posture.

Eases fibromyalgia pain

Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that can cause pain throughout the body, as well as fatigue and poor sleep quality. TC can relieve symptoms of fibromyalgia better than other types of exercises.

Helps establish healthy sleep patterns

Regular execution of ‘taiji’ can help correct disturbed sleep patterns. It is a remarkably effective drug-free method of treating poor sleep quality and insomnia.

Helps Control Diabetes

Research indicates that tai chi may help control type II diabetes and may even lower levels of glucose. Furthermore, it improves HbA1c indicators and cholesterol levels.

Benefits Of Tai Chi for Seniors

One of the best things about tai chi is that you are not required to have perfect coordination and strength. This is good exercise that can be practiced even by those with physical limitations. Certain moves can even be performed while sitting. Elderly people too can enjoy all the benefits, such as better flexibility, improved immunity and enhanced mental health.

Relieves arthritis pain

Regular practice of TC shows potential to ease effects of chronic diseases such as arthritis. Moreover, American College of Rheumatology (ACR) is suggesting it to relieve osteoarthritis symptoms in the knees.

Boosts cognitive skills

Switching between tasks quickly may not be easy when you are older. However, there is evidence that tai chi improves memory and prefrontal cortex activity. This area of the brain is responsible for cognitive skills.

Improves balance & minimizes risks of falling

Not only coordination and balance is better, but the risks of falling are significantly reduced. After exercises, Parkinson’s patients had lower fall risks.

Increases kinesthesia (body awareness)

Being a slow-motion activity, tai chi helps older people focus on the moves and become more aware of how their body is moving. This allows them to pinpoint and address any issues they may potentially feel.

Tai Chi Forms

There are five various styles, but each one can be adjusted to your personal preference and skill level.

  • Yang style – Here, the main focus is on relaxation and large frame graceful motions, which makes it a great option for beginner participants.
  • Chen style – It is a combination of slow and fast motions, and is recommended for advanced levels.
  • Wu style – This style is characterized by softness and micro motions, in a slightly forward leaning position.
  • Hao style – This is a lesser-known style. Emphasis is placed on accurate position and internal force.
  • Sun style – This style is less physically demanding and is often used for arthritis issues. It is characterized by absence of vigorous crouching, punching, and kicking. High stance and agile footwork make it a very therapeutic option.

Starting Tai Chi: Things You Need to Know

If you have decided to attempt practicing tai chi, you might be thinking about where and how to start. We have compiled several essential tips to help you get started.

Find an experienced instructor

The best and quickest way to learn tai chi is if you are taught by an instructor with a lot of experience. Try to enroll in classes which are taught by trained teachers. Typical places where you could find classes like these are specialized studios, senior centers, fitness studios, health clubs, or community centers. Alternatively, try searching online.

Watch the class first

It would be a good idea to avoid participating in the very first class, and just observe what is happening during the class. This way, you will be able to see better and to grasp the concept of the moves faster. You can also talk with other class members to get additional information and helpful advice.

Watch videos online

Videos are a great way to learn more about specific movements. Try official websites and YouTube, which is a treasury of informative and educational videos.

Preparing For Your First Class

We have compiled a selection of essential tips for your first class:

  • Inform the instructor about health issues – Let your instructor know about any issues so that they can modify your move sequences to suit your specific capabilities.
  • Comfortable clothes and shoes – Make sure you wear loose-fitting clothes (sweatpants, T-shirts, loose dresses) and comfortable shoes (or barefoot).
  • Warm up before you begin – Warm-up stage helps bring more oxygen to muscles and improves your physical efficiency.
  • Lower your expectations – This exercise is about learning to let go and being present in the moment, and not about perfection.
  • Take a break – If you start to feel uncomfortable for any reason, take a short break.

How Often Should I Practice?

Ideally, your schedule would involve 10 minutes of practice every day, which seems like an attainable goal for the majority of people. Some exercise 20 – 30 minutes daily. It all depends on your personal abilities and preferences.

You can also practice three times a week for one hour for three months. However, if that seems too challenging for you, try exercising twice a week for four months.

When Can I See The First Results?

You will see the benefits after a few months of continuous practice, although many people see the changes even earlier. They can feel they are calmer and healthier quite quickly, which is a great motivator to continue exercising.

Remember to trust the process. If you are a beginner, you may be seeing the benefits early on. If you have been active before, it may take you longer to notice the difference.

How To Do Tai Chi

Tai chi is not the type of activity where you focus on one specific move. Rather it is about a smooth sequence of moves called ‘forms’ or ‘moving meditation’.

  1. Warming up – It usually consist of simple and easy motions. For instance, leaning back and forth or moving shoulders in a circle. The goal of warming up is to relax the muscles while concentrating on breathing and body awareness.
  2. Exercise – Short forms have up to 12 different moves, and are usually advised for those who are just starting out. Longer forms can have hundreds of movements in a sequence.
  3. “Breathwork” – “Energy work” (Qigong) is a few minutes long gentle breathing technique, which is performed while standing, sitting, or lying down. Occasionally, Qigong can be combined with movements. Concentrating on synchronizing breathing and moves makes the moves more natural and powerful.

This type of activity is not intended to raise your heart rate or burn calories, but to restore energy and improve blood circulation, body alignment, and balance.

Targeted Body Areas

Here is how tai chi affects specific body parts:

  • Core – The strength of core muscles is very important as they hold your posture upright. However, in ‘taiji’ there are no crunches. The core will be used to perform the sequence of slow dance-like moves. During the exercises, abdomen is stretched, chest and lungs open up resulting in improved blood flow.
  • Back – Since your whole body is put at work, your back muscles will be included as well, and your back pain issues will be targeted.
  • Arms – Even though you are not using weights, you will be able to strengthen your upper extremities’ muscles and increase flexibility.
  • Legs – Lower body strength is improved by standing while performing motions which are not intense.
  • Glutes – Although there is not a specific exercise, your glutes will be activated, and hip muscles will start to open during the activity.

Useful Tips For Beginners

If you are just starting out on your journey, keep in mind the following:

Relax, but hold your posture

Try mirroring what the instructor is doing. Your body should be relaxed, and slow moving, but you should hold your posture well throughout exercise.

Maintain low gravity center

The most important thing is to keep balance when practicing tai chi. In order to do so, try maintaining your center of gravity low by slightly bending your knees and sinking your buttocks.

Stay flexible

Your abdomen, waist, and torso should remain flexible, and not stiff, in order to perform slow and gentle flow-like moves.

Be present As this is a form of moving meditation, practice staying present and mindful throughout the exercise. This will ultimately give you mental clarity and focus.

Focus on your Qi As the main purpose of tai chi is to encourage your Qi’s free flow, you will need to think and concentrate on what is happening to Qi and your body while exercising.

Side Effects

The reason why tai chi has become widely accepted is because it has few side effects. It is considered a safe practice, and your doctor will most likely have no objections against it. If you’re pregnant, make sure you consult with your doctor first. A minority of people may experience some of these symptoms:

  • Aches or pains (especially if you are a beginner)
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Risk of joint injury (as a result of improper practice or tougher ‘forms’)

Final Thoughts – Tai Chi Is A Magnificent Moving Art With Purpose

Practicing tai chi can significantly improve both your physical and mental condition. This series of slow body moves is safe and appropriate for people of all ages and all fitness levels. Although it looks slow and gentle, it is a very powerful art that helps us become aware of our body’s limits and possibilities. Introducing tai chi to your regular routine provides numerous advantages to your welfare, from improved mood, balance, and posture, to reduced anxiety and muscle pain. As it has just a few side effects, it can safely be adapted and practiced by individuals with health issues and a limited range of movement.

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