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T'ai chi is a Chinese exercise system that uses slow, smooth body movements to achieve a state of relaxation of both body and mind.
As a system of physical exercise used to improve and maintain health, t'ai chi can be helpful in achieving a state of physical and mental relaxation while also strengthening the cardiovascular and immune systems.
As a very slow and gentle form of moving, tai chi has virtually no side effects. However, if a person has any doubts about the conditions of his or her joints, vertebrae, or heart, a physician should be consulted.
Developed originally in China as a self-defense strategy, or martial art, tai chi—the "supreme ultimate fist"—is practiced in modern times primarily as a gentle exercise technique. Described as "meditation in motion," tai chi consists of a standing person performing a series of postures or bodily movements in a slow and graceful manner, with each movement flowing without pause to the next. According to Chinese legend, the technique was created by a Taoist monk who was inspired as he watched a crane and a snake do battle. Impressed by the 'snake's ability to subtly and swiftly avoid the bird's thrusts, he devised a series of self-defense techniques that do not involve meeting the opponent's force with force, but rather stress evading the blow; causing the opponent's own momentum to work against him.
Tai chi is an ancient form of exercise, about 2,000 years old, that at one point had over 100 separate movements or postures. In current practice, there are two popular versions, of 18 and 37 movements respectively. The fact that in China 10 million people practice some type of t'ai chi daily suggests that it is the one of the most popular forms of exercise in the world. In the United States, t'ai chi is learned in classes in which students (or "players," as they are called in China) wear loose, comfortable clothing and either go barefoot or wear only socks or soft shoes on the feet. In China, t'ai chi is almost always practiced outdoors at dawn, and ideally near trees. Unlike other martial arts, t'ai chi is not competitive. Classes usually begin with a few minutes of standing meditation to calm the mind and gather energy. Following warm-up exercises, students are taught the basics of a particular form or posture. Learning forms is not easy, and it takes some time to master what looks like a simple position. Properly done postures are done in a relaxed, artful, and linked way, with the circular and rhythmic movements of one position flowing seamlessly into the next.
While strict attention to body position is critical, proper breathing is considered to be equally important. Just as movements are slow and continuous and without strain, breathing should be effortless yet deep. Finally, both mental and physical balance is considered essential to t'ai chi. The experienced
practitioner of t'ai chi maintains perfect body balance throughout the exercise series. Altogether, the five essential qualities of t'ai chi are:
- Slowness. To develop awareness.
- Lightness. To make movements flow.
- Balance. To prevent body strain.
- Calmness. To maintain continuity.
- Clarity. To focus the mind.
T'ai chi has both physical and mental benefits. If done regularly, it improves muscle tone, flexibility, balance, and coordination. Many older people find that it boosts their energy, stamina, and agility, sharpens their reflexes, and gives an overall sense of well-being. The calming and meditative aspects of t'ai chi allow many to experience its ability to relieve stress. Some claim t'ai chi to be a healing therapy, and it is often used to support other treatments for chronic conditions; arthritis, fibromyalgia, and digestive disorders are just three examples. Like yoga, t'ai chi has several different styles to suit the individual. Also, it can eventually be done daily by oneself, and ultimately becomes a very personal endeavor. Most Westerners find it best to practice t'ai chi in the same place and at the same time of day; and those who enjoy it most are those who are not seeking major, dramatic breakthroughs, but rather who can take pleasure in small gains that accumulate over a long period of time.
Some research done in the United States focuses on the emotional and psychological benefits of t'ai chi. One recently discovered advantage of t'ai chi is its ability to hold people's interest longer than many other forms of exercise. One study in Oregon found that only 20% of people enrolled in a six-month t'ai chi program dropped out before the end, compared to an average of 55% for other forms of exercise. With regard to depression, a study of college students found that those who were taking t'ai chi classes had a lower rate of depression than students enrolled in other fitness programs.
T'ai chi is a safe exercise system for people of all ages and fitness levels. Done properly, without any over-stretching, t'ai chi should not leave a person feeling tired or sore.
Besides its overall fitness benefits and stress reduction aspects, regular t'ai chi sessions are said to be especially helpful for seniors, as they lower their blood pressure. T'ai chi claims to benefit arthritis sufferers, those recovering from an injury or rehabilitating their hearts, and also improves balance, and therefore, reduces the risk of falling, especially important for the elderly. T'ai chi can result in a significant improvement in the quality of life for anyone. But, because of the low stress level of the exercises it is a particularly attractive form of exercise to seniors.
Arthritis — Inflammation of the joints.
Cardiovascular — Relating to the heart and blood vessels.
Continuity — Uninterrupted and successive.
Fibromyalgia — A chronic disease syndrome characterized by fatigue, widespread muscular soreness, and pain at specific points on the body.
Meditation — An exercise of contemplation that induces a temporary feeling of relaxation.
Stamina — Staying power, endurance.
Yoga — A system of exercise aimed at promoting the control of the body and the mind.
In addition to studying the cardiovascular and range-of-motion benefits of t'ai chi, researchers are also investigating its positive effects on the immune system. A team of scientists in California reported in 2003 that t'ai chi boosts the resistance of older people to the shingles virus—a virus that is both more common and more severe in the elderly.
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American Association of Oriental Medicine. 5530 Wisconsin Avenue, Suite 1210, Chevy Chase, MD 20815. (301) 941-1064. www.aaom.org.
Canadian Taijiquan Federation. P.O. Box 421, Milton, Ontario L9T 4Z1. www.canadiantaijiquanfederation.ca.
Northeastern Tai Chi Chuan Association. 163 West 23rd St., 5th Floor., New York, NY 10011 (212) 741-1922.