what is tai chi?

Though its exact history is unknown, Tai Chi(also called tai chi chuan) is widely believed to have been developed in the 12th or 13th century in China. Originally created as a self defense discipline that simultaneously promotes inner peace, it is thought to be closely tied to Qigong, ancient Chinese martial art that has roots in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

There is no black belt or official master title to earn with Tai Chi. According to the Tai Chi Foundation, it takes around 30-36 classes to learn the basic movements. However, that estimate is assuming you’re under the guidance of a licensed instructor.

Fast forward to today, it remains one of the most popular martial arts styles in China. Usually performed in groups, in the morning in parks and open spaces, over the past decades, its practice has steadily increased outside of its country of origin – including in western countries such as the U.S.

What is tai chi and how to do tai chi?

Tai chi combines deep breathing and relaxation with flowing movements. You may also find tai chi appealing because it’s inexpensive and requires no special equipment. You can do tai chi anywhere, including indoors or outside. And you can do tai chi alone or in a group class. Tai chi is a noncompetitive, self-paced system of gentle physical exercise and stretching. Each posture flows into the next without pause, ensuring that your body is in constant motion.

The core philosophy of Tai Chi is deeply rooted in Taoist philosophy: keeping the balance of the Yin and Yang, the opposing elements that make up the universe that need to be kept in harmony.

Yin is believed to have the qualities of water such as stillness, inward and downward directions and is feminine in character. In contrast, Yang tends to be masculine and has qualities of fire, such as heat and includes upward and downward movements. In Taoism, it is believed that in order for one to be healthy, their Yin and Yang need to be in balance – this can be achieved through the practice of Tai Chi.

The essential principles include mind integrated with the body; control of movements and breathing; generating internal energy, mindfulness, loosening and serenity. The ultimate purpose of tai chi is to cultivate life energy within us to flow smoothly and powerfully throughout the body. Total harmony of the inner and outer self comes from the integration of mind and body, empowered through healthy life energy through the practice of tai chi.

the relationship between tai chi and yoga

Similar to yoga, Tai Chi may encourage spiritual growth, even if it isn’t a goal you intend to achieve when starting your practice. Its inward focus and cultivation of mindfulness help to establish a connection with the world, especially when practiced in nature.

Although similar, Tai chi is mostly confused with yoga. Tai chi emphasizes fluid movement and has roots in Chinese culture. Yoga focuses on posing and originated in Northern India.

In this low-impact, slow-motion exercise, you go without pausing through a series of motions named for animal actions — for example, “white crane spreads its wings” — or martial arts moves, such as “box both ears.” As you move, you breathe deeply and naturally, focusing your attention — as in some kinds of meditation — on your bodily sensations. Tai chi differs from other types of exercise in several respects. 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. Tai chi can be easily adapted for anyone, from the most fit to people confined to wheelchairs or recovering from surgery.

There are many styles and forms of tai chi, the major ones being hao, Chen, Yang, Wu, and Sun.

Names like Yang, Wu, and Cheng are given to various branches of tai chi, in honor of people who devised the sets of movements called forms. Certain programs emphasize the martial arts aspect of tai chi rather than its potential for healing and stress reduction. In some forms, you learn long sequences of movements, while others involve shorter series and more focus on breathing and meditation. Each style has its own features, but all styles share the same essential principles.

  • Yang style tai chi focuses on slow, graceful movements and relaxation. Yang style is a good starting point for beginners.
  • Wu style tai chi places an emphasis on micro-movements. This style of tai chi is practiced very slowly.
  • Chen style tai chi uses both slow and fast movements. This style of tai chi might be difficult for you if you’re new to the practice.
  • Sun style tai chi shares a lot of similarities with Chen style. Sun style involves less crouching, kicking, and punching, making it less physically demanding.
  • Wu/Hao style tai chi, Also referred to as ‘The 1st Wu style’, it is the result of the combination of Yang and Chen styles. The movements are done in smaller frames with slow, smooth movements and a high posture.

Throughout history, Tai Chi has been used by Chinese scholars, monks, sages, artists, intellectuals, emperors and their imperial guards, princes and commoners, because of its extraordinary versatility and proven effectiveness. Whilst drawing from all the strands of Chinese spiritual and philosophical thought, Tai Chi is not tied to any religion or dogma, but is available to any interested student.

Tai chi is often described as meditation in motion, but it might well be called medication in motion. In the advanced levels of tai chi, it can be an exceptionally effective martial art for combat situations. However, the types of tai chi that are practiced today are mostly concerned with relaxation and non-combat situations.

Unlike intense martial arts like Muay Thai and MMA, tai chi is easier for individuals with limited mobility, like tai chi for seniors or those with disabilities. Most people should be able to practice tai chi, regardless of age or fitness level. Due to the slow and calm nature of tai chi, people struggling with a disability can adapt the movements to suit their activity level.

There are 108 movements in tai chi. The movements are paired with breathing exercises to help the entire body and mind stay connected while practicing tai chi. In tai chi, each form flows into another one seamlessly. A variety of tai chi movements connected together is called a set. You won’t need to learn all 108 moves at once and try to perform them in a set. You’ll likely start with just a few moves and then move up from there. It depends on how long you plan on practicing every day and how dedicated you are to learning new techniques.

Tai Chi consists of ‘Four Pillars’ or types of practice, as well as a variety of physical exercises and meditative practices.

The Four Pillars of tai chi are Qigong, Form, Pushing Hands and Application

Qigong (or chi kung): Translated as “breath work” or “energy work,” this consists of a few minutes of gentle breathing sometimes combined with movement. The idea is to help relax the mind and mobilize the body’s energy. Qigong may be practiced standing, sitting, or lying down.

Form: This is a flowing sequence of movements, lasting from 5 to 20 minutes. The Form very effectively develops physical skill and health and constitutes a very enjoyable kind of moving meditation. Each movement can be practised at increasing levels of depth as the student develops. There are many variations of the Form within the different Tai Chi lineages and their schools, but they are all derived from the same original Form, and the principles of movement are always the same.

Pushing hands(Tui Shou): Pushing Hands is a kind of partner exercise, where two people develop sensitivity and coordination together. This is a very enjoyable, playful, and free-flowing kind of exercise.

Application: Application is the most advanced aspect of physical training and in some ways the most rewarding. In application the student explores the deeper subtleties of the Form’s movements, in a dynamic fashion with a training partner. Applications test and perfect students’ understanding of the movements, developing high levels of mind-body coordination, awareness, sensitivity, and confidence.

Tai chi has two main concepts that are considered to be the fundamentals of it

  • 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 need to be kept in harmony. Tai chi is said to promote this balance.

Numerous studies have shown tai chi improves muscular strength, flexibility, fitness, improve immunity, relieve pain and improve quality of life. Muscle strength is important for supporting and protecting joints and is essential for normal physical function. Flexibility exercises enable people to move more easily, and facilitate circulation of body fluid and blood, which enhance healing. Fitness is important for overall functioning of the heart, lungs, and muscles. In addition to these components, tai chi movements emphasize weight transference to improve balance and prevent falls.

What are the health benefits of tai chi?

Tai chi helps with fat loss process

Regularly practicing tai chi can result in weight loss. One study tracked changes in weight in a group of adults practicing tai chi five times a week for 45 minutes. At the end of the 12 weeks, these adults lost a little over a pound without making any additional lifestyle changes.

Tai chi helps with cardiovascular fitness

Depending on the speed and size of the movements, tai chi can provide some aerobic benefits. If your clinician advises a more intense cardio workout with a higher heart rate than tai chi can offer, you may need something more aerobic as well.

Tai chi reduces stress and helps with overcoming depression

Preliminary research suggests that regularly practicing tai chi can reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression. It’s believed that the slow, mindful breaths and movements have a positive effect on the nervous system and mood-regulating hormones. Further research is being done to establish a clear link between tai chi and improved mood.

In 2018, one study compared the effects of tai chi on stress-related anxiety to traditional exercise. The study included 50 participants. The researchers found that tai chi provided the same benefits for managing stress-related anxiety as exercise. Because tai chi also includes meditation and focused breathing, the researchers noted that tai chi may be superior to other forms of exercise for reducing stress and anxiety. However, a larger-scale study is needed.

Tai chi is very accessible and lower impact than many other forms of exercise. The researchers found it to be safe and inexpensive, so it may be a good option if you are otherwise healthy and experiencing stress-related anxiety.

Tai chi helps with proprioception and balance

Tai chi improves balance and, according to some studies, reduces falls. Proprioception — the ability to sense the position of one’s body in space — declines with age. Tai chi helps train this sense, which is a function of sensory neurons in the inner ear and stretch receptors in the muscles and ligaments. Tai chi also improves muscle strength and flexibility, which makes it easier to recover from a stumble. Fear of falling can make you more likely to fall; some studies have found that tai chi training helps reduce that fear.

Tai chi helps with brain development and cognitive functioning

For a research review published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in 2014, investigators sized up 20 previously published studies testing the effects of tai chi on cognitive function in older adults. The reviewed studies demonstrated that tai chi may have beneficial effects on cognitive function, particularly in older adults without existing cognitive impairment. The effect size in adults without cognitive impairment was large compared to no intervention and moderate when compared to exercise.

Tai chi promotes sleeping pattern and rem cycle

One study followed young adults with anxiety after they were prescribed two tai chi classes each week, for 10 weeks. Based on participant reporting, the individuals who practiced tai chi experienced significant improvements in their quality of sleep compared to those in the control group. This same group also experienced a decrease in their anxiety symptoms.

Tai chi can improve sleep for older adults, too. In a study published in 2016, researchers found that two months of twice-weekly tai chi classes was associated with better sleep in older adults with cognitive impairment.

Tai chi helps with overcoming multiple ailments

Some practitioners of tai chi tout it as an effective management tool for people with chronic heart failure. The evidence available, however, does not support this conclusion, and any studies showing an improvement conclude that the findings were insignificant.

A 2015 systematic review of 20 studies showed tai chi as beneficial for multiple areas of cardiovascular health, such as blood pressure and heart rate, although the quality of the studies was low, and the researchers drew no definitive conclusions.

A Cochrane review of 13 small trials also showed inconclusive evidence to support tai chi as a preventative measure against cardiovascular disease.

However, the results of one trial, which followed people after a recent heart attack, demonstrated that tai chi significantly improved maximum oxygen capacity.

Results from a 2018 study showed that a consistent tai chi practice can decrease the symptoms of fibromyalgia in some people. Participants in the study who practiced tai chi for 52 weeks exhibited greater improvements in their fibromyalgia-related symptoms when compared to participants practicing aerobics. Learn about other alternative treatments for fibromyalgia symptoms.

Tai chi may improve some of the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In one study, people with COPD practiced tai chi for 12 weeks. At the end of the study, they have improvements in their ability to exercise and reported an overall improvement in their quality of life.

Tai chi might benefit people with Parkinson’s disease, suggests a research review published in Clinical Rehabilitation in 2018. After reviewing 10 previously published studies, the authors found that tai chi significantly reduced falls in people with Parkinson’s disease and stroke. Tai chi also improved balance in those with Parkinson’s disease.

In a small-scale 2010 study, 15 participants with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) practiced tai chi for 12 weeks. At the end of the study, the participants reported less pain and improved mobility and balance.

A larger, earlier study found similar results in people with knee osteoarthritis (OA). In this study, 40 participants with knee OA practiced 60 minutes of tai chi, two times a week for 12 weeks. Following the study, participants reported a reduction in pain and an improvement in mobility and quality of life. There is some evidence that tai chi can improve mobility in the ankles, hips and knees in people with rheumatoid arthritis. However, it is still not known if tai chi can reduce pain or improve the quality of life for people with rheumatoid arthritis.

Emerging research suggests that tai chi may also help treat several other health conditions, including back pain and cancer-related fatigue.

what should you consider before enrolling in a tai chi session?

Choose loose-fitting clothes that don’t restrict your range of motion. You can practice barefoot or in lightweight, comfortable, and flexible shoes. Tai chi shoes are available, but ones you find in your closet will probably work fine. 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.

You should wear comfortable, flexible shoes with a good grip to avoid slipping. You might be able to use trainers or running shoes that you already have, but make sure they have a good blend of support and flexibility. Some people practice tai chi barefoot, but this isn’t recommended if you struggle with balance or are concerned about falling. If you’re looking for shoes specifically for tai chi, these Kung Fu shoes with a rubber sole are a great choice. They have a rubber sole to help provide a superior grip and are suitable for both indoor and outdoor use. The out-soles are made of rubber that won’t mark up your floors if you wear them inside.

Although tai chi is generally safe, women who are pregnant or people with joint problems, back pain, fractures, severe osteoporosis or a hernia should consult their health care provider before trying tai chi. Modification or avoidance of certain postures may be recommended.

Check with your doctor first if you have heart disease or if you take blood pressure medicine. Some blood pressure medicines can make you feel dizzy when you bend over or do certain other moves.

If you have a limiting musculoskeletal problem or medical condition — or if you take medications that can make you dizzy or lightheaded — check with your doctor before starting tai chi.