In the United States alone, there are millions of yoga devotees and for good reason. However, there is another relaxation practice that provides as many mind-and-body health benefits as yoga and is also low-impact. To better understand this practice called Tai Chi Chuan (also commonly called Tai Chi), it’s helpful to start with yoga. Though both practices provide profound health benefits and have many similarities, Tai Chi and yoga are different.
What Is Yoga?
Yoga is a system of techniques and practices developed in India nearly 5,000 years ago to address overall physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness.
Though there are many disciplines of yoga that are woven together, the roles of prana (life force energy) and pranayama (breath control) are central in yoga practice. With a focus on mindfulness and breathing, yoga practitioners hold fixed poses and postures, essentially stretching for relaxation. Some dynamic postures may even require arching, bending, and extending, but the journey is always to calm the mind, heal the body, and enjoy health benefits such as stress reduction, lowering blood pressure, and improving body alignment and balance.
What Is Tai Chi?
Tai Chi dates back at least 500 years in China, with its movements based on an ancient form of fighting. Created as a martial art, this Chinese form of exercise has gained popularity in modern times for its gentle, flowing, meditative movements along with coordinated breathing to help restore the balanced flow of Qi or chi (life force). Much like the principle belief of yin and yang, two opposing yet complementary forces that come together in harmony to form a whole, Tai Chi’s foundation is very similar: when one part of the body moves, the entire body moves together in natural balance.
Why Should You Try Tai Chi?
There are different styles of Tai Chi and some may focus more on the martial art experience. However, the essence of Tai Chi exercise is a gentle form of movement to enhance strength, balance, mobility, and flexibility while also connecting the mind and body. It is an exercise that is appropriate and adaptable for all ages and abilities. The motions are graceful and slow, usually performed in short or long sets of circular motions without muscle tension or forced joint extensions. Breath control is also a key component when performing a fluid series of motions.
Harvard Medical School has conducted in-depth studies on the health benefits of Tai Chi. Their research supports Tai Chi as an adjunct therapy for many diseases and chronic conditions including hypertension, arthritis, stroke, and insomnia, and also endorses Tai Chi as a powerful tool for disease-prevention—deep relaxation may initiate more of our “disease-fighting” genes when relaxation-exercises are performed routinely over time. Other benefits of this gentle exercise include:
- boost circulation
- improve upper and lower body strength
- strengthen core muscles in the back and abdomen
- improve balance (this plays an important role in preventing falls as people age)
- increase flexibility
- manage stress
- help lower blood pressure
WFP’s Take-Home Advice
Tai Chi is an excellent form of exercise that is appropriate for learners of all ages and talent. However, if you have health concerns, please check first with your medical provider before starting a new fitness routine.
- Observe a Tai Chi class before taking one, either in person or online. This gives you an opportunity to learn about the style and forms performed as well as student goals/class expectations.
- Tai Chi is certainly an activity that you can do in your own home, but it’s not always a solo activity. Exercising with a group is a good way to connect with people. The Push Hands technique encourages partners to work together through a series of motions to help each other learn the basics of placement, posture, and form.
- Although many Tai Chi classes are offered in a studio setting, try to find classes that are held outside. Exercising outside in nature can enhance your meditation efforts, boost your mood, allow for intake of natural sunlight, and encourage more relaxation.
- Make this activity a routine in order to enjoy the full benefits of this slow-flow exercise. Once you begin to learn the series of short/long forms, you can mentally go through the motions when you aren’t able to physically perform them. Going through the motions in your head can help reduce stress and calm the mind.
- It’s never too late to begin Tai Chi. You can start at any age because this form of exercise is sustainable through all stages of life.
Sources and References:
Qigong Institute. Harvard Medical School Endorses Qigong and Tai Chi. qigonginstitute.org. Retrieved on August 27, 2018 from https://www.qigonginstitute.org/category/68/harvard-medical-school-endorses-qigong-and-tai-chi.
What Is Yoga? yogaalliance.org. Retrieved on August 27, 2018 from https://www.yogaalliance.org/About_Yoga/What_is_Yoga
The health benefits of Tai Chi. (2015, December 04). health.harvard.edu. Retrieved on August 27, 2018 from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-health-benefits-of-tai-chi.
History of Tai Chi. taichiforhealthinstitute.org.Retrieved on August 27, 2018 from https://taichiforhealthinstitute.org/history-of-tai-chi-2/.