The ancient Chinese martial art known astai chi chuan (also spelled taijiquan) is currently experiencing a renaissance as people search for fitness alternatives that can heal both body and mind. Tai chiis a low-impact movement art form that has always been popular with older adults. However, as our modern life becomes ever more hectic, the mindfulness aspects of tai chi have attracted younger adults seeking a cure to stress. Tai chi classes may be offered in community centers, senior centers, YMCAs and gyms. There are also dedicated tai chi schools teaching traditional tai chi passed down through master/disciple lineages. There are a number of options to figure out which one is a good fit.
Tai Chi for Exercise
The majority of tai chi classes offered in the local community teach it as a form of exercise. With low-impact movements, tai chi is an excellent exercise alternative for people of all ages, especially older adults. Adults typically notice weakening strength in their legs and loss of balance as the first signs of aging. Tai chi consists of continuous movements providing a low-impact cardiovascular exercise while also providing weight bearing exercise for legs. Clinical research studies have shown that tai chi is more effective than other forms of exercise in preventing falls (JAMA Internal Medicine, 2018).
Many instructors are able to teach tai chi as an exercise program. When seeking an instructor, request to observe a class. Carefully observe the posture and joint alignments in both the instructor and the students. Pay particular attention to see if knees are in direct alignment above the feet and not collapsed inwards or twisted outwards. A good instructor will emphasize correct posture and alignment during class to prevent risk of injury. Ask the students if they feel any joint strain during class. Tai chi done properly should not cause joint pain.
Tai Chi for Medicine
In addition to fall prevention, clinical studies have also shown tai chi’s beneficial effects on chronic diseases, including arthritis, fibromyalgia, high blood pressure, Parkinson’s disease, pulmonary disease and heart disease. A 2017 study published in Annals of Internal Medicineshows tai chi to be as effective as physical therapy for knee osteoarthritis. A 2017 study published in Journal of the American Heart Association shows tai chi is not only as effective as traditional cardiac rehabilitation after a heart attack, but has a higher completion rate, thereby reducing the risk of a repeat attack. A 2018 study published in Chest shows that it is as effective as traditional pulmonary rehabilitation in treating COPD; in addition, the beneficial effect of tai chi was greater than traditional rehabilitation 12 weeks after intervention was completed.
Not all tai chi instructors are qualified to teach it for its therapeutic benefits. Seek instructors who have many years of experience teaching tai chi to people suffering from chronic diseases. Ask them questions about the published research as they should have familiarity with the major studies. An instructor with an understanding of Traditional Chinese Medicine principles can provide a deeper depth of knowledge on tai chi’s therapeutic effects. When in doubt, check with a doctor for their recommendations.
Tai Chi for Inner Harmony
Many people start their tai chi practice for its physical health benefits. Those who become life-long practitioners discover its benefits extend far beyond the physical body. In Chinese culture, the study of tai chi is not just a movement exercise. It is a study of yin/yang philosophy, the Taoist concept of opposing forces seeking balance in a constantly changing world. The study of tai chi for its philosophy and martial art concepts enables the practitioner to apply the yin/yang principles into their bodies and minds to better navigate conflict and change. The practice begins with connecting the mind with the body and connecting the whole body together from fingertips to toes. The practitioner learns to soften themselves, which defuses their opponent’s attack. They are able to harness their internal energy to redirect the attack with ease. These techniques, effective in physical conflicts, are equally effective in non-physical conflicts experienced at home, work and in life on a daily basis. When we are able to maneuver through conflict situations with ease, our mindset changes, drastically reducing our stress level. We are able to live a life of inner harmony.
In traditional tai chi, there are no certifications. In order to learn tai chi to harness internal power and flow through conflict, seek out an instructor who has studied extensively under a legitimate master. An instructor can only teach what they know. Ask instructors about their lineage, who they studied under and for how long. It takes at least 10 years of continuous study under one master to fully understand their teachings.
Whether we study tai chi for exercise, for medicine or for inner harmony, the key is patience. The tai chi paradox is the harder we try to dotai chi, the harder it becomes. When we are able to let go of tension, relax and connect mind with body, everything becomes easier, in tai chi and in life.