Smooth moves: Tai Chi

With exercise names such as ‘stork cools wings’ (a.k.a. stretching upwards) or ‘needle to sea bottom’ (touching your toes), it’s easy to think of the Eastern healing art of Tai Chi as an onomatopoeia in motion, particularly since every movement so clearly suggests the sense behind it.

Some may even call Tai Chi a kind of meditation in motion. Every aspect of this graceful form of movement marries the mind and body and that’s what makes Tai Chi so appealing for more than 25,000 students in 32 countries worldwide.

Yet for die-hards still convinced that the ‘no pain, no gain route’ to improved fitness is the only way to go, the big question about Tai Chi is this: Can a workout that forgoes running around in a fatigued sweat really do anything to change your body and rejuvenate your health?

“Absolutely,” says former squash enthusiast Chris Farano who, after taking up Tai Chi in 1995, now manages the Greater Toronto branches of the Taoist Tai Chi Society of Canada. Launched in 1970 by Master Moy Lin-Shin, this volunteer-driven organization began teaching Westerners about the healing and rejuvenative qualities of Tai Chi, which many people then considered nothing morthan a martial art.

Looking for something other than the usual fitness options to feel better, Farano admits, “At first I was somewhat nervous about Tai Chi. I thought, ‘How can this be good for me if I’m not running around chasing a little black ball?’ But once I saw a Chinese fellow perform Tai Chi with such wonderful form I was intrigued and set aside my reservations.”

Builds muscle strength
After enrolling in a four-month beginner’s class, Farano saw amazing results. “Tai Chi focuses on building muscle strength deep inside the body, not visible muscle. Even though I didn’t have the upper body I had when I played squash, I became stronger than ever through Tai Chi.”

Several forms of Tai Chi are practised around the world. Taoist Tai Chi is slightly different because:

  • It incorporates an extra degree of stretching and turning into its 108 moves
  • When done consecutively as a 20-minute-long combined routine, promote greater physical and mental health, improved circulation, and optimal function in all of the body’s systems simultaneously.

As Farano says, “Whether you’re nine of 90, anyone can do Tai Chi regardless of physical condition. It also offers numerous health benefits, especially for seniors.”

Impact on seniors
For example, two years ago the Klaw-Pepper Foundation in the United States did a study of Tai Chi’s impact on senior citizens.

  • After monitoring test groups through a 20-week program, a marked improvement in balance was noted in the participants.

That’s a significant factor, says Fararo, since greater overall balance can help prevent those first falls that often leave many seniors bedridden with chronic health problems.

  • In fact, advanced studies on the positive impact of Tai Chi upon the heart’s aortic valve health are now under way at the Taoist Tai Society of Canada’s Health Recovery Centre in Orangeville, Ontario.

Traditional medicine
“Tai Chi has been practised in China for hundreds of years as part of its traditional medical system, in which herbal remedies, acupuncture and therapeutic exercise are combined to maximize one’s health,” explains Dr. Min Tian, a Hamilton, Ont., medical practitioner.

After graduating with a medical degree in China 21 years ago and then completing a Ph.D in cancer research at Oxford University, Dr. Tian taught Tai Chi for several years in her mother country. As she says, “In Chinese medicine, all the organs are connected, and Tai Chi involves every organ in an internal massage. Done properly, Tai Chi can help the body and vital organs become more active and efficient.”

From combatting autoimmune diseases to helping people cope with the last stages of cancer, Dr. Tian regularly uses Tai Chi as a tool to improve patient health. “The beauty of Tai Chi is very simple,” she explains:

    1. “It has no age limitations.
    2. It’s a very flexible form of exercise. For example, many yoga poses which also relax and rejuvenate the body may not be possible for people paralyzed or in a wheelchair.
    3. Tai Chi can be adjusted to create a very individualized fitness program for anyone.
    4. Tai Chi also combines mind and body exercises with breathing, so that at the end of a session you feel very relaxed and peaceful in your mind and body.
    5. Tai Chi has a very positive impact on illness and can improve the health of those suffering with cardiovascular problems, balance and co-ordination difficulties, breathing problems, and high blood pressure.”

Check with your doctor
Tai Chi has no negative effects whatsoever, but like any fitness program, check with your doctor before you begin regular classes.

As Dr. Tian says, “The best advice is to take an introductory course (usually once a week for about four months at a cost of approximately $160) and work with an instructor you trust. She also says:

  • Once you master the moves, you can do the entire routine in seven to 20 minutes.
  • But you must do Tai Chi every day.
  • Its positive effects are cumulative and only by incorporating Tai Chi into your daily routine will you see its true benefits.

For more information on Tai Chi courses near you, contact the Taoist Tai Chi Society of Canada (416) 656-2110.