Tai Chi is a gentle form of exercise that originated in China as a martial art. It is essentially a method of movement designed to cultivate inner peace, power, and awareness using slow-motion flow, meditation, and deep breathing. Practitioners of the art find that Tai Chi comes with a cadre of health benefits, too, such as better balance, mobility, and coordination. Here are the basics you need to know to start practicing Tai Chi and how it could help improve your health.

What is Tai Chi, Exactly?

A group of older people practice tai chi postures in a grassy parkTai Chi is actually an abbreviated name for the practice, as its full name is “Tai Chi Chuan.” Loosely translated, the phrase means “supreme boundary fist movement,” but most people describe it as “meditation in motion.”

Developed in the 12 century A.D., the Chinese originally used Tai Chi as a method of self-defense, but it eventually grew into a health and wellness practice. Much later in the mid-1950s, a group of Chinese Tai Chi masters developed a standardized version that included 24 postures to make the practice more beginner-friendly. Today, different styles have evolved but the basic set of principles remains constant: 

    • you should use your mind to initiate the movement
    • move with relaxed, loose joints
    • synchronize body movements
    • perform movements in circular motions, and 
    • maintain a continuous flow.

Tai Chi is different from other types of exercise in several respects: The movements are circular and never forced, the muscles are relaxed rather than tensed, the joints are never fully extended or bent, and connective tissues aren’t stretched. However, even if you haven’t been physically active before, Tai Chi can make a large difference in how your body and brain age. A systematic review and meta-analysis published in the November–December 2022 Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics revealed that older adults who practice tai chi reported improved mobility, less joint stiffness, better sleep, less anxiety, better cognitive function in those who had mild cognitive impairment, and overall better quality of life.

What Does Tai Chi Look Like?

Two women with gray hair practice tai chi together in a fieldDuring Tai Chi, you plant your feet into the ground and shift your weight as you perform various slow-motion movements that flow from one to the next. As you move, you breathe deeply and naturally while focusing your attention on bodily sensations. The intent is to complete a form, which is a set of movements that can vary greatly in length. Short forms may include a dozen or fewer movements, while long forms may include hundreds.

Each motion within a form usually has a name — like “white crane spreads its wings” or “box both ears” — that helps to describe what the action looks like. So, if you were to take a class, it would usually involve an instructor performing the motion while calling out its name so that you can follow along. 

In addition to physical motion, Tai Chi involves Qigong, or “breath work.” Practiced standing, sitting, or even lying down, Qigong is essentially a few minutes of gentle breathing with the intention of relaxing the mind and mobilizing the body’s energy.

Tai Chi’s Health Benefits

Even though practitioners usually don’t break a sweat, Tai Chi addresses all the key components of physical fitness: muscle strength, flexibility, balance, and even aerobic conditioning.  

When practiced regularly, the strength gains of Tai Chi are comparable to resistance training and brisk walking, according to a study done by Harvard University. Although you aren’t working with weights or resistance bands, the unsupported arm exercise involved in Tai Chi strengthens and increases the flexibility of your upper body, particularly your core muscles.

A group of adults practice tai chi in unison outdoors; somewhere with large oak trees and spanish mossOne of the key components of Tai Chi movement is balance, which is an increasingly important factor as we age. According to some studies, practicing Tai Chi can reduce falls because it helps to train our body in regaining proprioception — the ability to sense the position of one’s body in space. Proprioception is a function of sensory neurons in the inner ear and stretch receptors in our muscles and ligaments, which we utilize when trying to perfect the movements necessary in a Tai Chi form. (Tai Chi also reduces the risk of injury involved with falling because it improves muscle strength and flexibility, which can make it easier to recover from a stumble.)

And while Tai Chi does not typically function as a cardiovascular exercise, you do experience some level of aerobic conditioning through controlled breathing. This focus on breath is also immensely beneficial to anyone who needs help reducing stress or anxiety. Deliberately copying a relaxed breathing pattern calms the nervous system that controls the body’s involuntary functions, so it can lead to a lowered blood pressure and heart rate, reduced levels of stress hormones in the blood, and even improved immune system functioning.

How to Get Started

Tai Chi is great for people who are just starting a fitness journey, or for those who need to find an alternate form of exercise due to injury or disability. It can be easily practiced at home without any need for fancy equipment, as long as you’re willing to try! 

A woman practices tai chi at home in her living room, wearing a purple sweater and gray, loose-fitting pantsWhen you first start, it’s easy to be intimidated by the language. Classes are often given names like Yang, Wu, and Cheng — which are various branches of Tai Chi named in honor of the people who devised the forms. Very briefly, the chief differences between the forms are as follows:

Chen: The oldest form of Tai Chi, which incorporates martial arts elements like kicks, punches, and jumps.

Yang: Focuses on balance and performing slower, graceful movements.

Wu: Similar to Yang, with more forward- and backward-leaning movements.

Sun: More dance-like movements, with an emphasis on footwork.

As a beginner, try to find a class that has shorter forms and more focus on the Qigong, or breathing.

While a group setting in a gym or senior center might be ideal for beginners — so you can get feedback on your form and experience camaraderie from other newbies — you can also learn at home. There are loads of online resources and videos at your disposal, including free videos from the Tai Chi Foundation, and tons of helpful series from Dr. Paul Lam on YouTube, who is a well-known and respected Tai Chi Master. 

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