When the Western world thinks of "martial arts," it inevitably thinks of kicking, punching, fighting, and body contact. Not slow, rhythmic, and meditative body movements designed to enhance relaxation, inner calm, and peace. But that's what the martial art of tai chi is all about: slow, rhythmic, meditative movements designed to help you find peace and calm.
Tai chi is a centuries-old Chinese martial art that descends from qigong (pronounced: chee-gong), an ancient Chinese discipline that has its roots in traditional Chinese medicine. According to some records, tai chi dates back as far as 2,500 years! It involves a series of slow, meditative body movements that were originally designed for self-defense and to promote inner peace and calm.
Qi (pronounced: chee) - In traditional Chinese medicine, human beings are considered miniature versions of the universe, and like the universe, they are thought to be made up of the constant interaction of five elements (metal, water, fire, wood, and earth). It is believed that these five elements flow in an interrelated manner throughout all the organs of the body as the five phases of universal qi, with qi defined as the life force-the intrinsic energy in the body that travels along pathways in the body called meridians.
A state of good health is achieved when the interactions between these elements cause the flow of your qi to occur in a smooth and balanced manner. You could say that one reason you study tai chi is to help your qi flow smoothly.
Qigong - Qigong, from which tai chi (qi) originates, is a discipline that involves the mind, breath, and movement to create a calm, natural balance of energy that can be used in work, recreation or self-defense. Like yoga, where many varieties have evolved over the centuries, there are more than 3,000 varieties of qigong and five major traditions: Taoist, Buddhist, Confucian, martial arts, and medical, and two major types: "soft" and "hard." Soft qigong is called inner qigong, of which tai chi is an example.
Yang, wu, and tai chi chih are three of the most popular styles of tai chi.
In China, it is believed that tai chi can delay aging and prolong life, increase flexibility, strengthen muscles and tendons, and aid in the treatment of heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis, digestive disorders, skin diseases, depression, cancer, and many other illnesses. Unfortunately, there hasn't been a good deal of scientific evidence to support these claims. In a special study of tai chi called a meta-analysis, where many studies on one subject are reviewed, the author concludes that although there is some evidence to support the positive effects of tai chi on health, fitness, and balance, many of the studies are limited by small numbers of subjects and wide variation in the type and duration of tai chi used. Bearing these limitations in mind, here are some of the documented benefits.
One study looked at adults in their 60s and 70s who practiced tai chi three times a week for 12 weeks (60-minute classes). These adults were given a battery of physicalfitness tests to measure balance, muscular strength and endurance, and flexibility before and after the 12 weeks. After just six weeks, statistically significant improvements were observed in balance, muscular strength, endurance, and flexibility measures. Improvements in each of these areas increased further after 12 weeks. The authors of the study concluded that tai chi is a potent intervention that improved balance, upper- and lower-body muscular strength and endurance, and upper- and lower-body flexibility in older adults.
Aerobic capacity diminishes as we age, but research on traditional forms of aerobic exercises show that it can improve with regular training. In another meta-analysis study, researchers looked at seven studies focusing on the effects of tai chi on aerobic capacity in adults (average age 55 years).
The investigators found that individuals who practiced tai chi for one year (classical yang style with 108 postures) had higher aerobic capacity than sedentary individuals around the same age. The authors state that tai chi may be a form of aerobic exercise.
Walking speed decreases with age and research suggests that it may be associated with an increased risk of falling. In one study, however, it was found that individuals who practiced tai chi walked significantly more steps than individuals who did not. Walking has clearly been associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other chronic illness, and so if tai chi can improve walking, then it's certainly worth giving it a try.
Fibromyalgia (FM) is one of the most common musculoskeletal disorders and is associated with high levels of impaired health and painful symptoms that frequently flair up without relief. The cause of FM is unknown, and there is no known cure. In a study of 39 subjects with FM who practiced tai chi twice weekly for six weeks (one-hour classes), it was found that FM symptoms and health-related quality of life improved after the study. This could be good news for many other individuals who suffer from this disorder.
The demands of living are stressful for adults of all ages. Although one cannot directly point to studies showing a reduction in stress from practicing tai chi (though in one study subjects who practiced tai chi reported that mental control was one of the benefits), the breathing, movement, and mental concentration required of individuals who practice tai chi may be just the distraction you need from your hectic lifestyle. The mind-body connection is one that deserves special attention, as it has been reported that breathing coordinated with body movement and eye-hand coordination promote calmness.
I know that when I practice meditation or tai chi, the inner sense of peace and calm is indisputable, and so I suggest that you give tai chi a chance if you're looking for a creative and physically active way to improve how you mentally and physically respond to stress.