On warm days it is not uncommon to see groups of people gathered in the park engaging in the flowing, choreographed set of tai chi movements. In fact, it is almost like a dance, and each sequence has both dignity and beauty. As this practice has become widely available, more people are drawn to its benefits.

Tai chi is made up of gentle, flowing routines that encourage a deep focus on the body and the breath. In addition to the fluidity of movement, tai chi has a special focus on balance, which means not only the body’s ability to feel secure in its center of gravity but also the balancing of mind, body, and spirit.

Next to yoga, tai chi is rapidly becoming one of the most popular forms of exercise. Though these two practices are very different, most tai chi practitioners would agree with yogis in saying the benefits they experience go far beyond the idea of exercise.

Similar to yoga, tai chi emphasizes breathing and meditative movement. Throughout the practice, the goal is to maintain a tall upright posture and keep the breathing full and even. However, unlike yoga, all the movements flow from one to another. Where yoga emphasizes poses, tai chi emphasizes movement.

The Practice of Tai Chi and How It Can Boost Wellness

History of Tai Chi

Tai chi is a form of martial arts that originated in China in the 1600s. Its name means “supreme ultimate,” and it is often called shadowboxing due to its soft, controlled nature.

There are five main tai chi styles; Chen, Yang, Wu/Hao, Wu, and Sun, all of which were refined by the Chen family in the 1800s. (1) While some of these styles may incorporate power and speed, all types emphasize slow, flowing movements at the beginning level.

Advanced practitioners move on from the gentle beginner routines and shift focus to tai chi as a form of self-defense. Because the emphasis is on defense, not offense, it is considered a “soft style” of martial arts. Instead of going on the attack, the goal is to use the least amount of force to turn an attacker’s momentum against them.

Tai chi theory relies on the concepts of yin and yang. This view sees all things as existing as opposites that complement and attract each other. (2) Yin is represented in the female, the moon, and softness. Yang is represented by the masculine, the sun, and action. Neither is good or bad, but a balance of each is required.

The guiding principles of yin and yang are the foundation of Tai chi’s focus on balance. Each movement needs to balance the body, mind, and spirit. Tai chi seeks to balance the opposites and create a state of harmony.

The Practice of Tai Chi

“The soft and the pliable will defeat the hard and strong.” – Lao Tzu

Tai chi operates on the principle of taking the body through its full range motion while maintaining stability over the body’s center of gravity. (1) The practice consists of two main components: repetition of solo routines and pushing hands.

The solo routines are the most familiar aspect of this exercise. These consist of a specific sequence of memorized movements. These movements happen repeatedly in order to gain mastery and fluidity. Doing them slowly at a controlled pace can provide many health benefits.

Hand pushing is taught at higher skill levels of tai chi and is a martial arts technique to counter an opponent’s attack. In tai chi, the goal is to meet hardness with softness, and many different forms of hand pushing may be taught to disperse or turn the force of an attack.

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Health Benefits of Tai Chi

While there are many aspects of tai chi that make it stand out from other forms of exercise, here are four of its top benefits.

Reduced Stress

Tai chi is often called “meditation in motion.” The on-point concentration and emphasis on body sensations allow the mind to enter a meditative state. As the solo routines become more familiar, the practitioner can more easily embody the movement. This can then lead to a “flow” state where the mind is fully absorbing the activity. This allows these movements to provide some of the same benefits as sitting in meditation.

Studies claim that regular practice can reduce stress, decrease anxiety and relieve depression. (3) Many forms of physical activity can reduce stress. However, what makes tai chi so effective is how it counterbalances what practitioners call the yang energy of modern life and makes space for slow, gentle yin energy.

Finding balance is a key part of wellness

Improved Balance

Balance is one of those skills that deteriorate quickly. The ability to balance on one leg is an essential component of a healthy walking gait. As a result, maintaining balance over time is critical to physical health and independence.

Practicing tai chi improves balance and confidence. (4) Consequently, in older adults, it decreases fear of falling and increases the quality of life. (5) At any age, being strong, agile, and confident in your ability to balance allows you to move through life with ease.

Beyond the benefits of improved physical balance and movement, this meditative movement seeks to balance the mind and spirit. Together, this cultivates a deeper connection with the spiritual aspects of our being.

Safe for Everyone

The slow pace and gentle nature of tai chi make it safe and accessible to most people. For individuals who have not been very active in the past, tai chi will increase strength, agility, and stamina without any high impact or overly intense movement. The elderly, in particular, can benefit from this exercise as it will make them stronger and more confident while also keeping them safe.

For people who are unable to tolerate the standing solo routines, chair versions can widen accessibility.

Even people who are already fit will benefit from this practice. Tai chi complements other forms of movement, and it provides benefits different types of exercise lack, such as mind-body connection, balance, and the ability to move with grace. Most exercise styles would be classified as yang or active and high energy. Tai chi, especially in its beginner forms, cultivates yin energy which is an essential balance even for the fittest of us.

A healthy individual is able to be active and firm, but also relaxed and soft.

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Decreased Pain

This exercise can decrease chronic pain from a variety of causes, including arthritis, fibromyalgia, and lower back issues. (6) Truly, the potent combination of gentle physical movement and meditative flow makes it an effective pain management technique.

While people who experience chronic pain tend to shy away from the movement, in reality, moving more is often an effective way to manage pain. However, the movement should be gentle and appropriate to the pain condition. Certainly, tai chi is an ideal choice.

If tai chi is practiced for pain management, the most benefit will come from a gentle beginner’s class that uses only slow, controlled solo routines. In fact, these tend to be the most common classes available, but as with any activity, it is vital to make sure to work at an appropriate level.

How to Know If Tai Chi Is Right for You

The benefits of tai chi are available to everyone, no matter age, fitness level, or state of health. Therefore, if you suffer from chronic pain, mental illness, or daily stress, these movements can be especially helpful to improve your quality of life.

While the world around us is constantly changing, ancient practices such as tai chi remind us that people are, in many ways, still the same. Thus, our bodies still benefit from the same activities that cared for the bodies of our ancestors. In fact, our minds and spirits can still enjoy practices that shaped the minds and spirits of many who came before us.

Tai chi promotes a state of balance and well-being. Once you memorize the forms, it can be done anywhere and is an easy way to re-center and relieve stress. Certainly, tai chi can be for anyone. The best way to know if it’s right for you is to give it a try and experience the benefits for yourself.