What Is Tai Chi and What Is it Good For?

Tai Chi (pronounced TIE-chee) is a form of gentle exercise based on ancient Asian martial arts. But, unlike the moves you see in Bruce Lee movies, Tai Chi is practiced slowly and effortlessly, almost in slow motion. It is often described as “meditation in motion,” because like meditation it promotes feelings of serenity and well-being, achieved by performing gentle movements – called forms – that help you to better connect your mind and body.

What are some of the benefits of Tai Chi?

One of the main benefits of Tai Chi is that once you learn the basic forms, you can practice it anywhere, on your own, with no need for any special clothing or equipment. That said, Tai Chi is usually taught in groups; you have probably seen images of groups of people performing Tai Chi movements in unison. The movements themselves are performed gently and slowly, without any jarring motions that could impact the spine, or cause injury, so even people who are suffering from arthritis or chronic back pain can practice it effectively and benefit from it.

Although Tai Chi itself is centuries old, it has been studied scientifically only recently. But the preliminary research indicates that it can provide many benefits other than exercise, including:

  • Reduction of stress and tension
  • Improved posture and balance, which can reduce falls in older people
  • Greater muscle strength, agility, and flexibility
  • Improved quality of sleep
  • Relief of chronic pain
  • Greater energy and endurance

Many doctors, osteopaths, and chiropractors recommend Tai Chi to patients who live with chronic back pain, arthritis or sciatica, or other conditions. They have found that Tai Chi’s soft and flowing movements improve your posture and the alignment of your body without the impact or strain of other forms of exercise. As you perform the individual forms, you also practice focused and rhythmic breathing, which helps to oxygenate your blood and improve circulation. This can result in a meditative state of mind that allows practitioners to dissipate the stress and anxiety that often are the root causes of their pain or disorders.

How do I learn Tai Chi?

The best approach to learning Tai Chi is to take a class in it. Although there are videos available that claim to be able to teach it to you, a great deal of the instruction in Tai Chi is interactive, meaning that the teacher carefully watches you perform each of the forms, and makes sure that you are doing them properly. Who is going to do this if you’re just watching a video? The movements themselves are simple, but often deceptively simple, and a good instructor can help you to master them quickly, and not fall into bad habits by doing them incorrectly. Also, since breathing is an important part of Tai Chi practice, an instructor can help you to make sure that you are breathing easily and naturally, and not huffing and puffing by “trying too hard.”

Classes are available in many places, including schools, the YMCA, and community centers. If you don’t see classes in your area, contact The Arthritis Foundation (www.arthritis.org), who can tell you if one of their classes is offered in your location. But in most cases you’ll find too many Tai Chi classes, not too few of them. One excellent way of deciding among the classes you find is to ask to observe a class before enrolling. This gives you the opportunity to assess the teacher and see whether you are comfortable with his or her approach. There are many different styles of Tai Chi, and observing a class can help you to decide which style appeals to you the most. In general, try to find instructors who have both practiced and taught Tai Chi themselves for many years, as opposed to someone who only learned the art themselves a few months ago or took one short course in how to teach it; in this art, experience does matter.

Before you start the classes themselves, as with all new forms of exercise, it is a good idea to check with your doctor or chiropractor first, especially if you have osteoporosis, spine or joint problems, heart problems, or if you are pregnant. But, because the movements in Tai Chi are performed slowly and effortlessly, there are very few people who should not practice it.

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