What is tai chi?
Tai chi, pronounced "tie chee," is a gentle exercise program that is a part
of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Derived from the martial arts, tai chi is
composed of slow, deliberate movements, meditation, and deep breathing, which
enhance physical health and emotional well-being.
As are many practices from the East, tai chi is based on spiritual and
philosophical ideas that advocate a need for balance in the body, mind, and
spirit. Central to tai chi is the idea that qi (pronounced "chee"), or
life energy, flows throughout the body. Qi must be able to move freely
for good health. The principle of yin/yang is important, too. Yin
and yang are opposite and complementary forces in the universe, such as
light and dark. Tai chi is meant to harmonize these pairs of opposites. Finally,
tai chi imitates motion found in nature, such as the movements of animals,
thereby uniting human beings with the natural world.
What is the history of tai chi?
Zhang Sanfeng, a martial artist who lived in China in the late 16th century,
created the practice of tai chi. According to legend, Sanfeng had a dream about
a snake and a crane engaged in battle; their graceful movements inspired his
non-combative style of martial arts. This ancient form of movement has been
practiced in China for centuries and is still a daily routine for tens of
thousands of people there, especially the elderly. It was first introduced to
the United States in the early 1970s and has since grown in popularity.
How does tai chi work?
There are various perspectives on how tai chi works. Eastern philosophy holds
that tai chi unblocks the flow of qi; when qi flows properly, the
body, mind, and spirit are in balance and health is maintained. Others believe
that tai chi works in the same way as other mind-body therapies, and there is
ample evidence that paying attention to the connection between the mind and the
body can relieve stress, combat disease, and enhance physical well-being.
Tai chi has three major components—movement,
meditation, and deep breathing.
- Movement -- all the major muscle groups and joints are needed
for the slow, gentle movements in tai chi. Tai chi improves balance, agility,
strength, flexibility, stamina, muscle tone, and coordination. This low-impact,
weight-bearing exercise strengthens bones and can slow bone loss, thus
preventing the development of osteoporosis.
- Meditation -- research shows that meditation soothes the mind,
enhances concentration, reduces anxiety, and lowers blood pressure and heart
- Deep breathing -- exhaling stale air and toxins from the lungs
while inhaling a plentitude of fresh air increases lung capacity, stretches the
muscles involved in breathing, and releases tension. It also enhances blood
circulation to the brain, which boosts mental alertness. At the same time, the
entire body is supplied with fresh oxygen and
What does a tai chi session entail?
Tai chi sessions are usually group classes that last about an hour. Each
session begins with a warm-up exercise. Then the instructor guides the class
through a series of 20 to 100 tai chi movements that together comprise a "form."
A form can take up to 20 minutes to complete. Each form has a nature-based name
that describes its overall action—such as
"wave hands like clouds" or "grasp the bird's tail." At the same time, students
are asked to focus on the point just below their navels, believed to be the
center from which qi flows. The teacher encourages the class to perform
all movements in a slow, meditative manner and to focus on deep breathing. At
the end of the class, there is usually a wind-down exercise, relaxation, and
How many sessions will I need?
Classes are usually taught on a weekly basis. Many practitioners recommend
practicing tai chi for about 15 to 20 minutes twice daily at home, since regular
practice is essential for mastering the forms and achieving lasting results.
Before beginning a tai chi program, you should check with your doctor and
discuss your health needs with the tai chi instructor. Exercises can be modified
depending on your mobility, history of injuries, chronic pain, joint swelling
(if present), and medication that may affect balance.
What conditions respond well to tai chi?
Tai chi improves overall fitness, coordination, and agility. People who
practice tai chi on a regular basis tend to have good posture, flexibility, and
range of motion, are more mentally alert, and sleep more soundly at night.
Tai chi is both a preventive and a complementary therapy for a wide range of
conditions. Specifically, it is beneficial for chronic pain, gout, heart
disease, high blood pressure, arthritis, osteoporosis, headaches, and sleep
disorders. Tai chi is also beneficial for the immune system and the central
nervous system, which makes it especially good for people with a chronic
illness, anxiety, depression, or any stress-related conditions. The deep
breathing of tai chi regulates the respiratory system, helping to treat
respiratory ailments such as asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema. It also
stimulates the abdomen, which aids digestion and helps relieve constipation and
gastrointestinal conditions. Many studies indicate that elderly people who
practice tai chi are much less prone to falls, a serious health risk to people
in that age group.
Are there conditions that should not be treated with tai chi?
Tai chi is safe for everyone, regardless of age or athletic ability, and can
be modified for most health problems. People with limited
mobility—even those in
wheelchairs—can learn and successfully use tai chi.
However, it is not meant to replace medical care for a serious condition. Talk
to your doctor and your instructor about any health problems or recent injuries
you may have, or if you are pregnant.
Is there anything I should look out for?
Tai chi exercises muscles in areas of your body that may have been neglected
for a while. Therefore, you may feel sore in the beginning. It takes time to
develop the posture, flexibility and agility needed for tai chi, so don't get
discouraged. As with any exercise program, safety is affected by proper
stretching and warm-up exercises, as well as correct alignment. If you
experience dizziness, shortness of breath, headaches, or severe pain, stop
practicing and talk to your instructor right away, and consult your doctor.
How can I find a qualified tai chi practitioner?
For information on how to find a tai chi class in your area, contact your
local health club or YMCA. Ask to sit in on a class before signing up, so that
you can observe the instructor and the atmosphere of the class.
There are also many resources on the Web;
has links to a wide variety of interesting tai chi sites and organizations. You
can also contact Wayfarer Publications (on the Web at www.tai-chi.com or by
phone at 1-800-888-9119) for information on tai chi books, videos, and
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