To the casual observer, tai chi looks like a slow-motion dance with a graceful, floating quality that makes it appear effortless. Hard to believe then that it could be called exercise at all. And yet, studies have linked tai chi to a multitude of health benefits, such as:
Improved cardiovascular fitness, including lowered blood pressure and cholesterol
Increased muscle strength and bone density (which helps prevent osteoporosis)
Improved balance and coordination
Stronger immune system
Reduced stress, anxiety and depression
Relief from arthritis, headaches and chronic pain
The Tai Chi Experience
At the heart of tai chi is the “form” the intricate sequence of six to 100+ movements that make up the slow-motion dance of tai chi. The key ingredients of a tai chi form include:
Slow, circular motion Unlike most Western exercises, tai chi movements are slow and circular your waist is always turning from left to right, right to left; and your arms and hands rotate in graceful arcs around your body.
Strength training The tai chi form is performed in a lowered stance, with knees bent. If you’ve ever done leg squats before, you know what a tremendous workout they provide for your legs. Now imagine doing a mild leg squat and sustaining that for 10, 20, 30 minutes as you practice tai chi.
Balance Tai chi requires you to focus on where your weight is balanced, and to shift that weight from one leg to the other in a smooth, controlled manner.
Relaxation While your waist and legs get a workout (from the waist turns and bent-knee stance), your upper body should be soft and relaxed.
Deep breathing All tai chi movements are accompanied by deep breathing, which helps calm your mind, release muscle tension and relieve stress. “When done properly, tai chi becomes a form a moving meditation,” says Tzyann Hsu, chief instructor of the Brooklyn Kung Fu and Tai Chi Academy in New York. “After you do it, you feel very good. Your body is relaxed and refreshed, your mind is clear and focused, ready to face the world.”
How to Get Started
Perhaps the best thing about tai chi is that it’s universal. Tai chi practitioners span all ages and fitness levels, from young uberathletes to older adults with chronic health problems and everyone in between.
You’ll find tai chi classes at independent tai chi and martial arts schools, community centers, health clubs, public parks and local schools. If you’re not quite ready for a class, try a DVD, such as the “Tai Chi for Health” series, created by Dr. Paul Lam, a family physician and tai chi master in Sydney, Australia.
Finally, give yourself time. “Because tai chi is so different from Western exercises, it can be difficult [for some Westerners] to get used to,” says Dr. Lam. “When you start, it’s common to feel clumsy. It may seem hard. But it looks so easy that you ask, ‘How come I can’t do it?’ Be patient with yourself. Our studies have found that after three to six months, most people become addicted to tai chi. If you give up too soon, you could miss out on one of the best things in your life.”
Jane Shiyen Chou, managing editor of Live Right Live Well, has more than 20 years of experience editing and writing for national consumer magazines and Web sites. She specializes in health, nutrition, fitness and parenting, and was a former editor at Family Circle, Redbook, Baby Talk, Child and McCall’s magazines.