The benefits of Tai Chi

It almost doesn’t look like exercise. The fluid, serene movements of Tai Chi look more like a slow dance than a workout. While this martial art has been around for centuries, it’s only been in recent decades that science has recognized it’s many benefits for both the mind and the body.

Tai Chi — short for tai chi chuan or taijiquan — is like meditation in motion. A typical “workout” consists of a series of routines (known as forms ) which keeps the body in constant motion. Breathing and posture are as controlled as the motions, and the goal is to foster a sense of well-being and movement of energy (or qi ) through the body.

Need a visual? Watch this short clip from the International Taoist Tai Chi Awareness Day in 2009.

Of course, not all styles are alike. Today’s Tai Chi practices derive from a few different traditional schools, and Tai Chi can be adapted to suit almost any interest and ability. Some styles have a faster pace, others focus more on the self-defense aspects of this martial art and some are specially designed for certain health conditions and recovery programs — and can even be done in a chair or a bed.

The benefits

Remember how we discussed finding balance in your fitness routine ? We know it’s important to include not just aerobic activity in our daily lives, but also weight-bearing activities (like strength training), flexibility and agility activities and relaxation techniques too. The good news: Tai Chi has you covered. Experts consider it to be a moderate cardiovascular activity as well as a weight-bearing one, and it provides a dose of meditation and breathing exercises too.

In other words, it goes a long way towards meeting our physical activity quota, but the benefits don’t stop there. Tai Chi also:

– lowers blood pressure. (Which is especially important given the risks of high blood pressure when it comes to heart disease and stroke.)

– helps with proper posture and protects the spine.

– helps maintain bone density and prevent bone loss — particularly in post-menopausal women .

– improves balance and reduces the chance of falls, especially in older adults. Tai Chi is a way for people of all ages to stay active and independent.

– promotes a sense of well-being and improves mood and energy levels. Likewise, it also helps reduce anxiety and depression.

– improves sleep. Not only is it good exercise, it helps promote a better awareness of the body and improves relaxation.

– boosts the immune system. Tai Chi can help the body heal itself. One study even found that Tai Chi helps the body ward off shingles — a blistering and often painful viral disease.

– reduces pain. Various studies have shown promise for helping to alleviate the symptoms of chronic pain (in the back, knees and neck, for example), as well as musculoskeletal pain caused from rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia.

In addition, Tai Chi is thought to help with a multitude of health conditions, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and respiratory ailments like asthma. Several studies have shown that Tai Chi improves a patient’s quality of life and self-efficacy (i.e. self confidence and ability to feel they can overcome obstacles).

There’s still more research needed, but scientists note the results look promising so far. While it’s hard to attach numbers and statistics to the benefits, both scientists and alternative and complementary medical practitioners tend to agree that Tai Chi is good for the body.

Before you start

Sounds tempting? Here are some tips to consider before you start:

– Take a class. While there are many videos available on the market and online, experts advise seeking some expert help while you’re still learning. Proper form is essential to reap the full benefits and prevent injury, so it’s helpful to have someone on hand to correct your movements and provide feedback.

The social aspect of the class is important too, as Tai Chi fosters connections both between master and student and among people who practice it together.

– Do your research. As we mentioned, there are a variety of styles involved, and not all beginner classes are alike. Be sure to find the right one for your abilities — especially if you want to include it as part of a health recovery regime.

Also, look for a reputable instructor. Tai Chi instructors don’t have to have a license, and there often isn’t a standardized training program. When you’re on the hunt for a good class, ask the instructor about their experience and education.

– Sturdy, comfortable footwear is a must to support the body. Pricy workout wear isn’t a necessity — think loose fitting clothing or clothing that allows ease of movement instead.

– Be patient. It takes time to learn and master the forms — up to three or four months, according to the International Taoist Tai Chi Society. A 12 week course is a good start, but the longer you practice Tai Chi, the greater the benefits.

– As with any new exercise program, check in with your doctor before starting Tai Chi if you have a health condition or concern.

– Try it before you commit. Look for free demonstrations and drop-in classes in your area — especially when the weather is right for outdoor activities. Ask around — many places will also let you try out a class or two as a guest.

Also, check out special events around World Tai Chi and Qigong Day in April and World Tai Chi Awareness Day in August. On this year’s Awareness Day — August 14, 2010 — be on the lookout for special events in Toronto as the Taoist Tai Chi Society celebrates is 40th anniversary.

Where to find more information and classes

It’s usually not hard to find Tai Chi classes in your area. Here are some places to look:

– Community organizations such as recreation centres, seniors’ centres, religious organizations and educational institutions.

– Private studios and gyms, or the YMCA/YWCA.

To find classes and events in your area or to get in touch with your local organization, use the search tools on the Taoist Tai Chi Society’s website .

For more information about Tai Chi, visit:
International Taoist Tai Chi Society
National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Additional source:

Photo © Willie B. Thomas

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