Often described as moving meditation, tai chi is an ancient Chinese discipline originally conceived as a type of self-defense in martial arts. Today, as a form of healthful mind and body exercise, tai chi is practiced all over the world. Its appeal is increasing dramatically among people of all fitness and ability levels.
In a nutshell, tai chi is a set of slow, structured movements of the body that smoothly flow from one to another. Generally, tai chi is a low-intensity exercise that includes postural alignment, extension of the arms in controlled motions, shifting of the body’s weight from one leg to the other within the same movement and rotation of the torso in an intentionally slow and seamless manner. There are also elements of deep breathing, concentration and relaxation.
We wanted to know more about tai chi, and what makes it so attractive to those who practice the art. We took a couple of classes, interviewed a well-known tai chi sifu (teacher) and listened to testimonies from individuals who have employed this time-honored discipline to improve their mental and physical health. In our search, we found several solid benefits of practicing tai chi.
#1 – Tai chi is for everyone. We interviewed Sifu Chris Burnett, of Green Dragon Tai Chi and Qigong, in Ohio. Having practiced tai chi for 11 years, Sifu Burnett said, “The great thing about tai chi is that people can do it at their current skill level. It can be done standing or seated. You can have a class full of people all with different ranges of motion and mobility. And everyone just does it at his or her level and still benefits.” The movements in tai chi are slow and deliberate, which makes it easy for beginners to fully participate. Sifu Burnett said, “Everyone may not get all of the benefits of tai chi. But if they practice sincerely, they will definitely get some – probably the ones they want or need.”
#2 – The practice of tai chi can increase your range of motion and relieve joint pain. In a study with over 200 participants, the American College of Rheumatology found tai chi to be as effective as physical therapy in patients with degenerative joint disease or osteoarthritis. Tai chi students with joint pain or stiffness often find relief through the practice. Sifu Burnett shared, “In a lot of my classes for seniors, they share their progress with me. Always someone will come up to me and tell me how they can move their shoulder now. I have some people tell me they can bend and reach the lower shelves. Most times it’s a matter of mobility or balance.”
#3 – Tai chi builds muscle strength. The graceful movements of tai chi might make it look like nothing more than a relaxation exercise. While it is indeed quite relaxing, tai chi is also a low-intensity strength building martial art. Rick DiMicco, from San Francisco, California shared that in his practice of tai chi, he was initially unaware of how strong he was becoming. DiMicco was in a situation where he needed to break down a door with double locks to help a friend. He said, “I went into my tai chi meditation. I swung my shoulder into the door using my hips and the door not only opened, but I tore the entire door frame down. The door flew into the front room.”
DiMicco and others gain strength through the slow and repetitive movements using the weight of the body as resistance. The idea that people have to use hand weights and quick jarring movements to get stronger is inaccurate. Tai chi offers a graceful and meditative approach to strength training with no special equipment or previous conditioning required.
#4 – Practicing tai chi can improve your balance and flexibility. The regular practice of tai chi is likely to greatly enhance your balance. The shifting of weight from one side of the body to another promotes stability and core strength, which leads to better overall balance. The British Journal of Sports Medicine found that senior citizens who practice tai chi suffer fewer falls than those who don’t practice. Similarly, the gentle, lengthening movements of the arms, legs and trunk in tai chi can improve the body’s flexibility over time.
#5 – The regular practice of tai chi can decrease anxiety and stress. The slow, meditative movements of tai chi bring about a sense of focused clarity. When people are feeling stress, their bodies have a few normal physical responses. Rapid breathing, increased heartrate and high blood pressure are a few typical bodily responses to stress. The deep breathing of tai chi helps lower stress in the body. When you concentrate on your breath, inhaling and exhaling deeply, you’re sending a message of relaxation and calm to your brain. In practicing the meditative movements and breathing of tai chi, you let your brain and the rest of your body know that it’s time to release tension and let go of stress and anxiety.
#6 – Practicing tai chi can help lower your blood pressure. Last year, The American College of Sports Medicine (ASCM) shared some research findings about tai chi at their annual meeting. They found that practicing tai chi just three times a week lowered the blood pressure of study participants nearly as much as prescription blood pressure medication. And when tai chi was practiced more than three times a week, the practice lowered blood pressure as effectively as the leading drugs prescribed for hypertension. Tai chi offers a natural way to lower blood pressure, without harmful drug interactions or side effects.
#7 – Tai chi can help you defend yourself. Historically, tai chi wasn’t designed to be merely a graceful practice to help lower a person’s blood pressure and relieve stress. The forms of tai chi were originally practiced as a skill for fending off attackers. It was also used to fight off assassins who were after the Chinese emperor.
Sifu Burnett told us about the day he knew he wanted to learn more about the self-defense side of tai chi. He recalled meeting a practitioner and teacher named Tony Wong. Sifu Burnett said, “He [Tony Wong] was very relaxed, yet if you pushed him he would not move. And he could effortlessly throw you around. I thought to myself, I must learn this skill.”
Practicing tai chi will foster a sense of self-confidence in people. A person with increased self-confidence will carry himself in a manner that doesn’t attract predators. Rick DiMicco told us about his last tai chi instructor. When he asked her if tai chi could be used for self-defense, she replied, “If you practice tai chi every day, you will carry yourself in such a way that no one would ever attack you.” DiMicco added, “I’ve seen her walking. And there’s something powerful in the way she walks. You can see the power in her body.”
While it may seem contrary to most forms of self-defense, the slow, meditative discipline of tai chi can give the practitioner an advantage over a would-be attacker. While remaining calm and unruffled in a stressful situation, a student of tai chi will be able to avoid the fear, hostility and rage which often cause people to make poor decisions during a conflict.
One of the basic forms of self-defense, in tai chi is called push hands. Push hands teaches the students how to feel the intent of energy, as it’s coming at them, and direct it. The student’s feet are “rooted” into the ground and pushing into the earth, while the upper body is controlling and moving the energy from an assailant. In tai chi, you can learn how to relax in a way that allows oncoming forces to pass through you instead of landing on you to cause injury. A tai chi practitioner doesn’t have the goal of stopping the energy or getting away from it, but controlling it.
#8 – Practicing tai chi can improve concentration in children and adults. The Touch Research Institute, at the University of Miami School of Medicine conducted a study of 13 adolescents that had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). ADHD is a disorder characterized by inattentiveness, impulsivity and hyperactivity. It’s often treated with prescription medications, coupled with psychiatric counseling.
During the study, the adolescents with ADHD participated in tai chi twice a week for five weeks. Their behavior was monitored throughout the study. After only 10 sessions of tai chi, the participants displayed less anxiety and daydreaming behaviors. They had fewer instances of inappropriate emotions and hyperactivity. The participants also had a noticeable improvement in conduct. The changes persisted even through the two week follow-up study period.
Tai chi training improves concentration levels in everyone who participates wholeheartedly. When concentration is enhanced, students begin to see things more clearly and approach life’s circumstances with more wisdom and serenity. Sifu Burnett said, “Tai chi raises the spirit and strengthens the body.”
There are all sorts of ways to exercise and build physical strength. Likewise, there are plenty of ways to work the mental muscle. The discipline of tai chi offers notable gains in the body and mind. Tai chi is a low-intensity activity that can be mastered by those of virtually any age or fitness level. Truth be told, you could begin tai chi in the comfort of your own home or office right this minute if you wanted. You don’t even need a pair of athletic shoes. A simple internet search will bring up a variety of beginner tai chi videos available at no cost. Consider taking a class. You won’t regret it.
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Harvard Health – The Health Benefits of Tai Chi – https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-health-benefits-of-tai-chi
Tai Chi for Health Institute – Essential Tai Chi Principals – https://taichiforhealthinstitute.org/essential-tai-chi-principles-2/
American College of Rheumatology (ACR). (2015, November 7). Tai Chi found to be as effective as physical therapy for knee osteoarthritis. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 24, 2017 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/11/151107172939.htm
Li JX, Hong Y, Chan KM
Tai chi: physiological characteristics and beneficial effects on health
British Journal of Sports Medicine 2001;35:148-156.
Medscape – Tai Chi Resembles Drugs, Aerobics in Blood Pressure Lowering – https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/864177
World Tai Chi Day – Tai Chi and ADHD – http://worldtaichiday.org/images/ADHD-MIAMIMEDICINERESEARCH.pdf