How Does It
To Choose a Practitioner
Tai chi (pronounced "tie chee")
is an ancient Chinese discipline that integrates mind,
body, and spirit. Practitioners use meditation and
deep breathing as they move through a series of
continuous exercises, called "forms," which
resemble slow-moving ballet. Though it originated as a
martial art (evolving from qigong), tai chi is now
practiced more for its therapeutic benefits, which
include reducing stress, promoting balance and
flexibility, and even easing arthritis pain.
According to one legend, tai chi was
developed in China in the thirteenth century. As the
story goes, a man who was a monk and martial arts
master invented it after watching a fight between a
crane and a snake. Being the bigger and more powerful
of the two, the bird appeared to have the advantage.
However, the snake's elusive movements enabled it to
win. Even today, practitioners who perform tai chi as
a martial art use subtle movements to dodge blows and
turn an attacker's own momentum against him.
Tai chi is far more than a mode of
self-defense, however. For hundreds of years, groups
of Chinese people, many of them elderly, have
performed its fluid, graceful movements in parks
throughout China as a way of staying vital. Today,
many people in the United States, Canada, and Europe
have become interested in attaining the health
benefits of this ancient art as well.
It is believed that tai chi, a
component of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM),
increases strength and promotes calm and harmony by
improving the flow of internal energy (or qi)
throughout the body. It is the calming, meditative
aspect of tai chi that makes it particularly useful
for reducing stress and anxiety. Indeed, people who do
tai chi regularly say that it improves their sense of
As an aerobic exercise, tai chi
benefits the entire body, increasing muscle strength
and enhancing balance and flexibility. People who
practice tai chi are also said to exploit the strength
of yin (the earth) and the energy of yang (the
heavens) through exercises designed to express these
forces in balanced and harmonious form.
You can learn tai chi privately from
a tai chi master or in a class setting. If you are
unable to find an instructor or do not have access to
classes, you can learn tai chi from books and videos.
(Keep in mind that if you opt to learn tai chi on your
own, you will not get the valuable benefit of coaching
and feedback from an experienced teacher.) You don't
need special attire. Wear something you will be
comfortable moving around in. Tai chi can be done in
shoes or bare feet.
Sessions typically start with some
sort of meditation to calm the mind, followed by easy
warm-up exercises to get the blood circulating. You
will be taught to focus on your dantian--an area in
the lower abdomen just beneath the navel--which is the
body's center of gravity. This will help you relax and
center yourself. Deep breathing (from the diaphragm as
opposed to the chest) is a key element of tai chi. You
will learn to coordinate your breathing with each
movement you make.
After the warm-up, your instructor
will teach a series of slow flowing movements that
performed together constitute a "form."
Forms reflect the natural world and have names like
"Crane Spreads Its Wings" and "Grasping
the Bird's Tail." An average tai chi routine
takes about 10 minutes, but a more advanced form may
include up to 100 movements and require as long as an
hour to perform.
Doing tai chi is not as easy as it
looks. Perfecting the art demands focus and unity of
mind, body, and spirit. Practice is essential. Many
people make tai chi a regular habit, doing it at the
same time every day. You may find tai chi to be an
invigorating way to begin your morning or you may wish
to do it after work to ease tension built up from the
Tai chi can be used as a preventive
health measure, as a way to maintain good health, or
to help with a specific ailment. While tai chi cannot
cure disease, it is often recommended as a
complementary therapy to conventional treatment.
Specifically, tai chi can be used to help:
Arthritis. By strengthening
the muscles surrounding an arthritic joint and
improving flexibility, tai chi increases range of
motion without causing pain. Although tai chi cannot
treat bone and cartilage damage caused by arthritis,
it can lessen the severity and pain of the disease
when started early enough.
Balance. Research shows that
practicing tai chi improves balance in older people
and thus reduces the risk of falling--a major cause
of death and disability in the elderly.
Circulation problems. Tai
chi may enable the heart to pump more blood with
each beat, thereby improving circulation.
High blood pressure. A
recent study done at Johns Hopkins Medical
Institutions revealed that tai chi lowered blood
pressure almost as much as moderate-intensity
aerobic exercise in older adults who had been
Preliminary studies suggest that tai chi helps
people with MS to increase their physical
functioning as well as their mental well-being.
Stress. Although the
evidence is limited, some studies have shown that
tai chi is as effective as meditation and walking
for reducing the amount of stress hormones in the
Tai chi teachers are not medical
professionals and therefore are not licensed. To find
a class, try your local YMCA, YWCA, or health club.
Colleges, universities, and city recreation
departments may also offer classes. If you'd prefer to
learn tai chi one-on-one from a tai chi master,
contact a martial arts school and ask for
recommendations. We also teach
Tai chi exercises to our students.
Don't commit to anything until you
are sure the class or teacher is right for you.
Observe a class or take a trial class if it is an
option. Talk to the other students in the class and be
sure to inquire about the instructor's background and
You can also check the library or a
bookstore for books and videos to supplement what you
have learned in a class.
Tai chi is safe for people of all
ages and fitness levels. However, if you are older
and sedentary, consult your doctor before starting
Tell your instructor if you have
any health problems that may compromise your ability
to do certain movements.
Tai chi should not make you ache.
If it does, tell your instructor. You should be able
to modify your practice so it is pain free.
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