T’ai chi Ch’uan or t’ai chi is a Chinese martial art form that was first promoted in the United States in 1939. Since that time t’ai chi has developed a worldwide following among people with little or no interest in martial training, primarily for its benefit to health and health maintenance.
T’ai chi is sometimes described as “meditation in motion” because it reduces stress and promotes serenity through gentle movements. To do t’ai chi, you perform a series of movements called forms. Each posture flows into the next without pause, ensuring that your body is in constant motion. The image of t’ai chi in popular culture is typified by exceedingly slow movement. However, many t’ai chi styles have secondary forms of a faster pace.
There are five major styles of t’ai chi, each named after the Chinese family from which it originated:
- Chen-style of Chen Wangting (1580–1660)
- Yang-style of Yang Lu-ch’an (1799–1872)
- Wu- or Wu/Hao-style of Wu Yu-hsiang (1812–1880)
- Wu-style of Wu Ch’uan-yu (1834–1902) and his son Wu Chien-ch’uan (1870–1942)
- Sun-style of Sun Lu-t’ang (1861–1932)
The differences between the different styles range from varying speeds to the way in which the movements are performed. Some styles may focus on health maintenance, while others focus on the martial arts aspect of t’ai chi.
The result of all this variation is that there are hundreds of possible movements and positions with t’ai chi, many of which are named for animals or nature (e.g. white crane spreads its wings). Regardless of the variation, all forms of t’ai chi include rhythmic and continual patterns of movement coordinated with breathing.
T’ai chi differs from other types of exercise in several ways. The movements are usually circular and never forced, the muscles are relaxed rather than tensed, the joints are not fully extended or bent, and connective tissues are not stretched.
Most forms of T’ai Chi are gentle and suitable for everyone. So you can practice t’ai chi regardless of your age or physical ability — t’ai chi emphasizes technique over strength. In fact, because t’ai chi is low impact, it may be especially suitable for older adults or those with some minor mobility impairments.
Today, t’ai chi is being subjected to rigorous scientific studies, the majority of which have displayed a tangible benefit in some areas of health.
- Improves balance control and has shown to reduce the risk of falls in healthy elderly people, and those recovering from chronic conditions.
- Improves posture because of emphasis on correct body position during movements.
- Improves muscle strength
- Improves cardiovascular fitness
- Burns more calories than surfing and nearly as many as downhill skiing.
- Helps reduce stress, anxiety and depression and improves overall feeling of well being. During t’ai chi, you focus on movement and breathing. This combination creates a state of relaxation and calm.
- Improves flexibility – the movement of weight from leg to leg, extending and lifting the arms, legs and hands and deceptive number of joint rotations helps vary the load on joint surfaces which increases the flow of natural lubricants and nutrients into the joint.
- Improves sleep quality
- Lowers blood pressure
- Relieves chronic pain
- Increasing energy, endurance and agility
More reasons to practice T’ai Chi
- It’s inexpensive, requires no special equipment or clothing.
- Requires little space and can be done indoors or out, either alone or in a group.
- Movements are low-impact and gentle and put minimal stress on your muscles and joints.
- The risk of injury is very low.
- You do it at your own pace.
- It’s noncompetitive.
- There are lots of movements to keep you interested, and as you become more accomplished you can add those to your routine.
Getting Started with T’ai Chi
Dress comfortably. Choose loose-fitting clothes that don’t restrict your range of motion. You can practice in lightweight, comfortable, and flexible shoes. You’ll need shoes that won’t slip and can provide enough support to help you balance, but have soles thin enough to allow you to feel the ground. Running shoes, designed to propel you forward, are usually unsuitable.
There are plenty of books and videos you could buy or rent about t’ai chi, but it’s better to start with a qualified t’ai chi instructor to gain the full benefits and learn proper techniques. A t’ai chi instructor will also teach you about the philosophy underlying the techniques.
You don’t need to subscribe to or learn much about t’ai chi’s roots in Chinese philosophy to enjoy its health benefits, but these concepts can help make sense of its approach:
- Qi — an energy force thought to flow through the body; tai chi is said to unblock and encourage the proper flow of qi.
- Yin and Yang — opposing elements thought to make up the universe that needs to be kept in harmony. T’ai chi is said to promote this balance.
Don’t be intimidated by the language and names of the various branches of t’ai chi. Some styles or programs emphasize the martial arts aspect of T’ai Chi and others its potential for healing and stress reduction. In some forms, you learn long sequences of movements, while others involve shorter series or more focus on breathing and meditation. The name of the style is less important than finding an approach that matches your interests and needs.
Although T’ai Chi is slow and gentle, with virtually no negative side effects, like any exercise it’s possible to get injured if you don’t know how to do it properly. An instructor will teach you how to practice T’ai Chi safely, especially if you have injuries, chronic conditions, or balance or coordination problems. A T’ai Chi instructor can teach you specific positions and how to regulate your breathing.
You can find T’ai Chi classes in many communities today. To find a class near you, contact your local:
- Senior center
- Health club
- Community education center
- Wellness facility
- Martial Arts School
- The Arthritis Foundation (800-283-7800, toll-free) can tell you whether its T’ai Chi program, a 12-movement, easy-to-learn sequence, is offered in your area.
Keep in mind that T’ai Chi instructors don’t have to be licensed, and there are no standard training programs for instructors. So check an instructor’s training and experience. Get recommendations if possible, and make sure that you’re comfortable with their approach, teaching style and environment.
Consider observing and taking a class for starters. Most teachers will let you observe the class first to see if you feel comfortable with the approach and atmosphere. Look for a teacher who will accommodate individual health concerns or levels of coordination and fitness.
Eventually, you may feel confident enough to do T’ai Chi on your own. But if you like the social element, consider sticking with group T’ai Chi classes.