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  » Alternative Medicine  »  Tai Chi

What is tai chi?

Tai chi, pronounced "tie chee," is a gentle exercise regimen that is a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Derived from the martial arts, tai chi has been practiced in China for centuries and is still a daily routine for millions of people there, especially the elderly. It was first introduced to the United States in the early 1970s and has since grown in popularity among all age groups. Tai chi is designed to enhance overall health through slow, deliberate movements, meditation, and deep breathing.

Similar to many practices from the East, tai chi is based on spiritual and philosophical ideas that advocate a need for balance in the body, mind, and spirit. Central to tai chi is the idea that qi (pronounced "chee"), or life energy, flows throughout the body. Qi must be able to move freely for good health. The principle of yin/yang is important, too. Yin and yang are opposite and complementary forces in the universe, such as light and dark. Tai chi is meant to harmonize these pairs of opposites. Finally, tai chi imitates motion found in nature, such as the movements of animals, thereby uniting human beings with the natural world.

How does tai chi work?

There are various perspectives on how tai chi works. Eastern philosophy holds that tai chi unblocks the flow of qi; when qi flows properly, the body, mind, and spirit are in balance and health is maintained. Others believe that tai chi works in the same way as other mind-body therapies—although it's still unclear exactly how these therapies produce their effects, there is ample evidence that the connection between the mind and the body can be used to relieve stress, combat disease, and enhance physical well-being.

Tai chi has three major components—movement, meditation, and deep breathing.

  • Movement—in tai chi, slow, gentle movement improves balance, agility, strength, flexibility, stamina, muscle tone, and coordination. This low-impact, weight-bearing exercise can also slow bone loss and thus prevent the development of osteoporosis. Many studies indicate that elderly people who practice tai chi are much less prone to falls, a serious health risk to people in that age group. 
  • Meditation—research shows that meditation soothes the mind, enhances concentration, reduces anxiety, and lowers blood pressure and heart rate. 
  • Deep breathing—exhaling stale air and toxins from the lungs while inhaling a plentitude of fresh air increases lung capacity, stretches the muscles surrounding the lungs, and releases tension. It also enhances blood circulation to the brain, which boosts mental alertness. At the same time, the entire body is supplied with fresh oxygen and nutrients. 

What does a tai chi session entail?

Tai chi sessions are usually group classes that last about an hour. Each session begins with a warm-up exercise. Then the instructor guides the class through a series of 20 to 100 tai chi movements that together comprise a "form." A form can take up to 20 minutes to complete. Each form has a nature-based name that describes its overall action—such as "wave hands like clouds" or "grasp the bird's tail." At the same time, students are asked to focus on the point just below their navels, believed to be the center from which qi flows. The teacher encourages the class to perform all movements in a slow, meditative manner and to focus on deep breathing. At the end of the class, there is usually a wind-down exercise, relaxation, and meditation.

How many sessions will I need?

Classes are usually taught on a weekly basis. You can enroll in several weekly classes, if you wish, for as long as you want. Most practitioners recommend practicing tai chi daily at home, since regular practice is essential for mastering the forms and achieving lasting results.

What conditions respond well to tai chi?

Tai chi improves overall fitness, coordination, and agility. It also lowers blood pressure and heart rate, promotes relaxation, and releases stress and tension. People who practice tai chi on a regular basis tend to have good posture, flexibility, and range of motion, are more mentally alert, and sleep more soundly at night. Tai chi is both a preventive and a complementary therapy for a wide range of conditions. Specifically, it is beneficial for chronic pain, gastrointestinal problems, gout, heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis, osteoporosis, headaches, sleep disorders, depression, anxiety, and respiratory ailments, such as asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema.

Are there conditions that should not be treated with tai chi?

Tai chi is safe for everyone, regardless of age or athletic ability, and can be modified for most health problems. People with limited mobility—even those in wheelchairs—can learn and successfully use tai chi. However, it is not meant to replace medical care for a serious condition. Talk to your doctor and your instructor about any health problems or recent injuries you may have, or if you are pregnant.

Is there anything I should look out for?

Tai chi exercises muscles in areas of your body that may have been neglected for a while, so you may feel sore at first. It takes time to develop the flexibility and agility needed for tai chi, so don't get discouraged. However, if you experience dizziness, shortness of breath, headaches, or severe pain, stop practicing and talk to your instructor right away, and consult your doctor.

How can I find a qualified tai chi practitioner?

For information on how to find a tai chi class in your area, contact your local health club or YMCA. There are several types of tai chi and each one emphasizes a different style of movement. Ask to sit in on a class before signing up, so that you can observe the instructor, the type of tai chi being taught, and the atmosphere of the class.

There are also many resources on the Web; http://www.chebucto.ns.ca/Philosophy/Taichi/other has links to a wide variety of interesting tai chi sites and organizations. You can also contact Wayfarer Publications (on the Web at www.tai-chi.com or by phone at 1-800-888-9119) for information on tai chi books, videos, and publications.

Supporting Research

Beling J. 12-month tai chi training in the elderly: its effect on health fitness. Physical Therapy. 1999;79(2):208.

Castleman M. Nature's Cures: from Acupuncture & Aromatherapy to Walking & Yoga, the Ultimate Guide to the Best Scientifically Proven, Drug-Free Healing Methods. Emmaus, Pa: Rodale Press, Inc; 1996:352-359.

Hain TC. Effects of tai chi on balance. JAMA. 2000;283(7):864.

LoBuono C, Pinkowish MD. Moderate exercise, tai chi improve BP in older adults. Patient Care. 1999;33(18):230.

Lumsden DB, Baccala A, Martire J. T'ai chi for osteoarthritis: an introduction for primary-care physicians. Geriatrics. 1998;53(2):84-87.

Murray MT, Pizzorno JE. Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. Rev. 2nd ed. Rocklin, Calif: Prima Publishing; 1998:175-187.

Novey DW, ed. Clinician's Complete Reference to Complementary/Alternative Medicine. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby; 2000:219-230.

Null G. The Complete Encyclopedia of Natural Healing. New York, NY: Kensington Books; 1998:553-554.

Pelletier KR. The Best Alternative Medicine: What Works? What Does Not? New York, NY: Simon & Schuster; 2000:78-79.

Rappaport J. Muscle and meditation: the ancient art of tai chi builds strength—and serenity—in a few minutes a day. Natural Health. 1997;27(2):104-110.

Sifton DW, ed. The PDR Family Guide to Natural Medicines and Healing Therapies. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press; 1999:151-153.

Wolf SL, Barnhart HX, Kutner NG, McNeely E, Coogler CE, Xu T. Reducing frailty and falls in older persons: an investigation of Tai Chi and computerized balance training. Atlanta FICSIT Group. Frailty and Injuries: Cooperative Studies of Intervention Techniques. J Am Geriatr Soc. 1996;44(5):489-497.