Health benefits of Tai Chi
by Ian Sinclair
Tai chi was originally developed as a martial art, and is still practised as such by many around the world. But the great global popularity of tai chi is primarily due to it’s health benefits.
One of the most obvious benefits is the ability of tai chi to relieve stress. The art teaches the relaxed coordination of mind and body, a quality which is essential for martial artists and infinitely useful for everyone elses. This is why tai chi is often referred to as “meditation in motion.”
Tai chi is usually taught in small groups with plenty of individualized instruction. Beginners can usually just follow along without having to remember too much. The classes tend to be non-competitive, with each student progressing at his or her own rate.
The exercises are performed in a slow, gracefull manner, with care taken to avoid any unnatural stress on any part of the body. The movements joint together in a continuous flow of motion and energy.
There are several different styles of tai chi. The main ones are called, Yang, Chen, Wu, Sun, and Hao. Other less common styles are Fu, Li, Zheng, and Wudang. One modern derivative of traditional tai chi, called “Taoist Tai Chi“, is taught in several countries, but is not usually seen as a legitimate style by the larger tai chi community. 1
Whatever style you may choose, there will be wide range of emphasis, depending on the teacher. Some schools keep the martial aspect of tai chi in mind during all classes. Others will avoid even discussing the martial component. However, the best instructors will have, at the very least, a good understanding of the martial nature of the art, even if their main purpose in teaching is the improvement of health and wellbeing.
The routines range in length and complexity. Some simplified routines have as few as eight movements, while the traditional routines are like a symphony, with more than one hundred movements. The simplified routines can be performed in as little as two or three minutes, and repeated as often as you like. The longer routines take from twenty to forty minutes.
The effect, on the mind, of performing the long routine, can be quite profound. For that duration, you are getting a gentle workout that is as gentle or intense as you wish to make it. All the while you are performing exercises with relax the body, calm the mind, strengthen the core and legs, loosen the muscles, massage the internal organs, circulate blood and lymph, regulate the breath, and stretch out knots and stiffness.
You finish with a combination of vigour and inner calm.
Who does tai chi?
Tai chi appeals to one the widest demographics of any exercise. The ability of the “tai chi player” to modify the intensity and focus of the exercise allows it to benefit people of all ages and fitness levels.
Tai chi is practised by professional athletes who enjoy the improved performance, alignment, strength, mental calm, awareness, vigour and flexibility that tai chi provides. But the routines can also be modified for those who are confined to chairs or even bedridden.
Some teachers teach students as young as four to six years of age. Others won’t teach children at all.
There is now upper age limit for tai chi.
Tai Chi requires no cost to practice. And the cost of lessons varies according to the teacher and class size. Some institutions offer free lessons for some groups.
You can practice tai chi by yourself or with others. You can do it outdoors, or in the privacy of your own home. Some routines normally take a bit of space. But all of them can be modified for tiny rooms.
Tai chi is one of the safest exercises you can learn. But it is always a good idea to consult a health care professional before embarking on any new exercise routine. Also, you should let your instructor know if you have any health issues.
More than once I have had students join my class insisting that they were in perfect health, only to find out half way through their first class that they had a condition which required special attention. One such student suffered from hypertension and had stopped taking their blood pressure medication against the advice of their doctor. They joined an intermediate class and passed out part way through. They would likely have been okay in a beginner class. But I gave them a refund, not wanting to be responsible for a student who didn’t take their medicine.
– Ian Sinclair, Instructor – 30 years
Any student with issues to do with the back, arthritis, pregnancy, bones, hypertension, previous injuries, physical abnormalities, asthma, allergies, or pregnancy, should consult with a doctor and keep the instructor informed.
Tai Chi teachers are not usually medical professionals. But the amount of reliable research into the medical benefits of tai chi is constantly growing. The results of modern research may vary and will depend on the quality of the instructors and the size of the study group. But there is a lot of preliminary evidence that tai chi can help with: balance, strength, flexibility, depression, anxiety, sleep, blood pressure, cardiovascular fitness, pain, energy, endurance, and more.
Tai chi came to the attention of the medical community in the 1990’s when a study showed that the art could help reduce the incidences of falls in older adults.
A more recent study has shown that seniors showed greatly reduced symptoms of aging after only two months of bi-weekly tai chi classes, with the average student achieving stats of those ten years yonger in the control group. How is that for an ad? “Do tai chi for two months and feel ten years younger!”
Where to learn tai chi
Tai classes are offered in community centres, martial arts schools, fitness clubs, senior centres, parks, church basements, and private studios. You can also learn tai chi online from schools such as Sinclair Martial Arts.
You can start with a short program of about 8 – 12 weeks, or a seminar. Or you can enrol in ongoing classes. You may even be able to find private lessons.
There is no standard certification program for tai chi instructors, and no licensing is required.
But each teacher should offer some credentials. They should be able to tell you where they learned tai chi and for how long. Did their teacher certify them to teach? They should also be able to tell you how long they have been teaching. You can usually research their credentials on you own.
Some countries have national federations which recognize instructors or offer certification. This is sometimes done on a ranking system like the “duan” system used by the International Wushu Federation.
The Canadian Taijiquan Federation offers instructor certification and training for its members, in spite of the fact that the members are from a wide variety of styles and lineages. They manage this through a peer review process, with a certification committee that recognizes three levels according to standard criteria: Associate Instructor, Senior Associate Instructor, and Senior Instructor.
Regardless of the certification, you should likely shop around. Also, not every teachers is right for every student, and not every student is right for every teacher.
1The “Taoist Tai Chi” taught by the Taoist Tai Chi Society should not be confused with the more accepted Daoist Tai Chi styles taught in China. For more on the “Taoist Tai Chi” of the Taoist Tai Chi Society, click here.