How to Improve Strength and Flexibility with Tai Chi

 

Take an early morning stroll in any park or square in a Chinese city and you’ll see groups of dozens of people in synchronous, focused motion: tai chi. This slow, graceful and flowing mind-body practice is sometimes called “meditation in motion” as it moves the body and relaxes the mind.

And, there’s growing evidence to suggest that tai chi has a slew of health benefits, including reduced risk of falls.

Tai chi continuously moves the entire body, with no pauses between a series of fluid postures, and includes focused, deep breathing. Its philosophy is one of balance: everything is made up of two opposing forces in harmony with each other to create a whole—like yin and yang.

Founded more than 800 years ago (and sometimes attributed to a Taoist monk), tai chi is considered a martial art. It’s rooted in the basic values of martial arts: respect for yourself and respect for others.

The study of tai chi primarily involves three aspects: health, which concentrates on relieving the physical effects of stress on the body and mind; meditation, which fosters focus and calmness; and martial art, which promotes self-defense.

Tai chi is regarded one of the safest forms of exercise, as it’s low impact and puts minimal stress on joints. It’s perfect for all ages and fitness levels, and there’s no special equipment needed.

You can do tai chi anywhere, any time. There can be a social component to a regular tai chi practice as well. In China, daily tai chi groups gather every morning as their ancestors have for hundreds of years. It’s a time-honored tradition practiced every day by millions of people, young and older alike!

Do not be fooled into thinking that tai chi is “just for seniors.” Although tai chi is slow and doesn’t leave you gasping for breath, it still fulfills the core elements of exercise: balance, muscle strength and flexibility. And you will sweat, believe it or not!

It’s where tai chi differs from other forms of exercise that’s drawing attention from the medical community: its movements are circular and never forced, the muscles are relaxed, not tensed, the joints aren’t completely extended or bent, and connective tissues are not stretched.

 

Health Benefits of Tai Chi

Chi (or qi) is the energy flowing throughout the body. It is believed that Tai Chi unblocks and improves this flow of energy through the body, leading to greater awareness, calmness, and an overall sense of wellness. Tai chi also promotes the balance of yin and yang in the body.

Specific health benefits include:

  • Reduced stress, anxiety and depression
  • Reduced joint pain and stiffness
  • Increased energy and stamina
  • Improved flexibility, balance and agility
  • Improved muscle strength and definition

Even the medical community is getting on board with tai chi. Researchers at Harvard Medical School are compiling positive evidence on the value of tai chi in the prevention and improvement of age-related health conditions.

Some studies suggest that tai chi reduces the risk of falls as we get older, because it improves the sense of balance, body perception and confidence—all of which reduce the fear of falling.

And, tai chi is touted by the Arthritis Foundation as a “natural arthritis workout. Researchers at Tufts Medical Center found that tai chi can decrease the pain and physical impairment of people with severe knee osteoarthritis.

 

Get the Most from Your Tai Chi

Like any practice, doing tai chi regularly will improve your results. Many practitioners advocate doing tai chi at the same time every day for maximum benefit.

It’s a good idea to start with a live class, rather than a DVD or online video. Some people may shy away from a live class, feeling uncoordinated. It’s OK to feel uncoordinated at first—coordination and flow will come with practice!

A tai chi instructor can give you specific positions and breathing techniques and show you how to practice tai chi safely, especially if you have injuries, chronic conditions, or balance or coordination problems.

Tips:

  1. Wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothes that allow you to stretch and bend. Opt for thin-soled shoes, or go barefoot.
  2. Watch the instructor carefully. Many of the postures have descriptive names, but it’s best to watch what’s happening.
  3. Do your best and don’t worry if you don’t get all the movements down at first. Resist the urge to compare yourself to others in class who may have been doing tai chi for a while. Coordination and grace will come (an added benefit!).
  4. Make it a routine. Like any mind-body practice, the benefits increase with time and practice.

Tai chi should always feel flowing and gentle. If you feel any or pain or discomfort while doing tai chi, stop. Don’t push your body.

Feeling Groovy Wellness offers two Tai Chi classes per week: Sundays at 11 am, and Wednesdays at 4 pm. Click here to register for a class.

Tai chi is one form of exercise that you can start now, and practice for the rest of your life.

Note:  Always check with your doctor before starting any form of exercise.

Photo © michelangeloop – Fotolia.com

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