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Tai Chi & Your Health - A Full Guide

Published on: 
8th June 2017

Tai Chi Chuan (literally Supreme Ultimate Boxing) is a Chinese internal martial art that traces its origins back to the Neo-Confucian Song Dynasty and the theories and practices of a 12th century Taoist monk named Chang Sang Feng. There are many different styles of Tai Chi around however they all share the same fundamental characteristics of fluidity of movement, control of breathing and mental concentration.

Is Tai Chi a Martial Art or a Healthy Exercise?

Both. Originally promoted as a martial art, today the health benefits far out market its martial side. Tai Chi is typically referred to as a ‘Wudang’ or internal style of Chinese martial art which means that the martial applications of the arts are applied using internal power. This is achieved by the use of leverage through the joints based on relaxation and coordination, as opposed to muscular tension, so as to initiate, yield or neutralize attacks. Students are taught to meet force with softness, follow its motion while remaining in physical contact until the incoming force either exhausts itself or it is safely redirected.

What are the underlying principles of tai chi?

Lao Tzu, the shadowy, quasi-historical ancient Chinese thinker who penned the illustrious Tao Te Ching (The Book on the Way and its Power) provided the original archetype for Tai Chi philosophy when he wrote “The soft and the pliable will defeat the hard and the strong”.

A central point of focus with Tai Chi training is the facilitation of the qi (life force) to be able to flow powerfully and uninterruptedly throughout the body thus enabling the integration of body and mind through the ongoing practice of Tai Chi. Our minds are able to enhance qi, which is then utilize in connection with our unconscious mind to enhance our mental attitudes in general. We are referring to this principle in Tai Chi when we say ‘ When your body is relaxed and calm, when your mind is receptive and clear, then your qi will begin to circulate. When qi circulates, spirits soar’.

What are the health benefits of long-term Tai Chi practice?

Becoming more apparent as more evidence continues to pile up are the clinically verified claims of the beneficial effects of Tai Chi practice.

Peter M. Wayne assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Tai Chi and Mind-Body Research Program at Harvard Medical School's Osher Research Center has this to say –

"A growing body of carefully conducted research is building a compelling case for tai chi as an adjunct to standard medical treatment for the prevention and rehabilitation of many conditions commonly associated with age”.

One of the many fascinating things about Tai Chi practice is that although it is gentle, slow, and doesn’t leave you panting for air – what it does do is it addresses muscle strength, flexibility, balance and aerobic conditioning – these are the key, critical components of fitness.

Here are some of the ways in which this Ancient Chinese fitness regime can help you along with your health and well-being goals:

Muscular Strength - beneficial for both upper and lower body strength as well as the core muscles of the back and abdomen. Tai Chi is comparable to resistance training when practiced over time – one example being where the unsupported arm exercise components work to strengthen the upper body.

Flexibility - upper and lower body

Balance - Proprioception – the ability to know one’s position in space – declines with age. By helping train this sense via the stretch receptors in the muscles and ligaments, Tai Chi has been shown to improve overall balance and also to minimize falls in the elderly.

How to learn Tai Chi

Today the study of Tai Chi Chuan can be most easily divided into three aspects, each of which supports the other two:

Health: By focusing on relieving the physical effects of stress on the mind and body, the practice of Tai Chi will allow an unhealthy individual to reach a space where they can meditate to a state of calmness. Used primarily by the elderly and those with arthritis for these reasons, Tai Chi has been shown to promote considerable improvement in balance as well as other biological markers of age. For obvious reasons, an individual’s capacity for self-defense will be directly related to their level of physical health and fitness.

Meditation: The ability to remain calm and focused that is cultivated by the meditation aspect of Tai Chi is vital in maintaining optimal health and functioning in the individual as well as being necessary for the successful application of form in its martial execution.

Self-Defence: The greatest marker for a student’s understanding of the art of Tai Chi is their ability to use it in combat as self-defence. Many years of training are required before the student can fully understand and implement its principles in action and without thinking.

Class Sessions – what to expect

Should you discover the location of a nearby Tai Chi practice group that you think you may like to attend, here’s a few basics on what you can expect to see once you’re there.

A Warm-Up - Simple, circular motions used to loosen up your joints and muscles as well as to begin the process of bringing attention to the breath and the body.

Chi Kung (or Qi Gong) - Usually a few minutes of gentle breathing synchronized with movement. Basically it is a more refined version of the warm-up with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) guiding the internal and external movements.

Tai Chi - This is usually the body of the class where the form –set of movements- is given instruction in and practiced.

Can I learn Tai Chi?

Yes, it is true that Tai Chi Chuan is an immensely deep art that requires a lifetime to master. The good part though is that it is still relatively easy to learn and the health benefits do not take very long at all before they start delivering the goods. Most people that try Tai Chi continue it long after the original reasons for starting the practice are forgotten – the gains just keep on giving.