Exercise that focuses on both the body and mind is increasing in popularity due to the holistic benefits it provides. For example, in yoga, you may begin your practice on your meditation pillow, focusing on your breath and clearing your mind. This is followed by postures and movements that increase flexibility, stamina, and strength while simultaneously increasing circulation.
Tai Chi is another excellent way to strengthen the connection between mind and body. It has a long history and is considered an art form or moving meditation that provides many health benefits. The practice of Tai Chi originated in China and was also known as Shadow Boxing. The term, Tai Chi, was first referenced during the Zhou Dynasty between 1100-1221 BC. It means “ultimate”, expressing the vastness of the Universe.
The fundamental principles of the practice are based on Taoism, an ancient Chinese philosophy that is focused on balance - the balance of all things, including the spirit and physical.
In this philosophy, everything has an opposite that must work in perpetual balance, yin and yang. Historical accounts of its origins vary with reports from the 8th, 12th, and 15th centuries. One of the most well-known accounts is that of Chen Wangting, a Royal Guard in the 16th century. He developed many of the Tai Chi movements and routines in the 1670s, which is now referred to as the classic Chen style of Tai Chi. He was influenced by Taoism and Qi Jiguang, a general from the Imperial army who practiced a form of military boxing.
As time went on, the Chen family continued Wangting’s legacy and elaborated on his teachings. The 17th generation, Chen Fake, significantly furthered this style of Tai Chi and taught students in Beijing. This style of Tai Chi places a greater emphasis on the spiral force, with movements that are very similar to martial arts. It also uses combat techniques and can be more physically demanding.
During the 19th century, the Yang Style of Tai Chi was born. Yang Lu-chan was a material arts master with an impressive winning streak - until he sparred a descendent from Chen village. Yang Lu-chan’s opponent had a unique approach, with soft but powerful movements. This intrigued and inspired Yang to pursue Tai Chi. As the story goes, Yang traveled to the Chen village and pretended to be a starved beggar so an elder would take him in. There, he became their house servant and started practicing Chen Tai Chi. He quickly became so skilled that he was formally taken in as a student. Yang eventually left Chen and traveled around China, gradually developing his own style of Tai Chi. The movements in this style are slower and considered easier to learn than the Chen style, making it more accessible and the more popular form of Tai Chi today.
The third style of Tai Chi is Wu Style, also known as Hao Style. This was created a century after Yang by Wu Yuxiang, who passed it on to Hao Weizheng. Both creators had studied Chen and Yang styles, but their influence made the movements looser, with a greater focus on positioning and internal power.
The latest style of Tai Chi is Sun Style. This was created by Sun Lu-tang in the early 1900s. Sun ran into Hao Weizheng, who was sick and took care of him, not knowing who he was. After Hao returned to health, he stayed in Sun’s home and taught him Tai Chi. Later, like the other masters before him, Sun created his own style. Sun Style features gentle, agile steps with one foot following the other. It also has a number of high stances and focuses on internal power.
Although there are many more styles of Tai Chi, these four have played a significant role in the Tai Chi that is practiced around the world today. Regardless of style, there are guiding principles consistently practiced. The first is movement control. Tai Chi is most recognizable by its slow movements. They are smooth and continual, meant to gather inner energy. When you move, it is as if you are pushing against an invisible resistance like you are moving through water.
The second principle is body structure. In Tai Chi, you are an upright posture. So unlike yoga, where you may hold postures seated on a yoga cushion or meditation pillow, you are standing.
It is believed that by staying upright, Qi flows better, and your spine will be stronger.
The final principle is keeping your muscles relaxed but in control. The joints cannot be tense in order for Qi to flow. Additionally, you must keep the mind relaxed. A state of mental quiet and remaining present is needed.
Practicing Tai Chi
There are 108 moves to this moving meditation that can be learned through practice or classes. With plenty of free videos online, you can learn Tai Chi at home. Another great option is to find a local instructor. Many community and fitness centers offer classes with qualified instructors who will guide you, ensuring you maintain proper posture and relaxed movements.
When you practice Tai Chi, you will feel better mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. A 2014 article published in the journal of Psychiatric Clinics of North America stated that Tai Chi could improve mood and mental health by reducing anxiety, mood disorders, and depressive symptoms.
Research has also found that practicing Tai Chi regularly can improve your quality of sleep. In 2016 a randomized controlled study examined the effects of Tai Chi Chuan on quality of sleep and anxiety in young adults. Seventy-five adults between the ages of 18 and 40 were randomly assigned to one of three groups. The participants in the first group practiced Tai Chi twice a week in person, the second group was provided with a Tai Chi DVD, and the third group received a handout on anxiety management. The study lasted ten weeks, with anxiety and sleep quality being measured at four weeks, ten weeks, and then two months after the study was completed. The researchers found that both groups that practiced Tai Chi saw an improvement in quality of sleep and a reduction in anxiety. However, in the control group, no significant changes in anxiety were found and only a slight improvement in quality of sleep. The study concluded that Tai Chi may be “an effective nonpharmaceutical means of improving anxiety and poor sleep quality in young adults.”
Tai Chi is also great for posture and better alignment. When you combine Tai Chi with sleeping on a buckwheat pillow, you can improve your posture, stand taller and sit up straighter! Harvard Health has reported that the deliberate and slow flow of Tai Chi movements helps improve the body’s alignment and posture. Further, it can improve pain associated with fibromyalgia. In 2018, a study found that a regular Tai Chi practice offered the most significant reduction in symptoms and pain relief than other exercises commonly recommended for those with fibromyalgia. It can also increase energy, stamina, agility, and aerobic capacity.
Although this moving meditation is beneficial for people of all ages, it is especially effective for seniors. The gentle and low-impact movements make Tai Chi an excellent option for seniors who want to stay active. Research has found that seniors who do Tai Chi can benefit from increased cognitive function, reduced pain, and a reduced risk of falling. For example, in 2018, a study found that seniors with a mild cognitive impairment improved when they practiced Tai Chi, improving both executive function and memory.
In addition to cognitive decline, seniors often lose flexibility, coordination, and balance, increasing their risk of falling. Although all weight-bearing activities can benefit seniors, research has found that Tai Chi improves balance and motor function, reducing their risk and fear of falling. The slow and deliberate movements are accompanied by deep breathing and mindfulness, which helps them focus on their body, and how they are feeling and address any discomfort and instability. Further, seniors with chronic pain from arthritis can experience a reduction in pain and increased mobility.
To strengthen your mind and body, spend time in seated meditation on your meditation cushion or in a moving meditation with Tai Chi.
The ancient art of Tai Chi has transcended cultures and time, providing millions of people with a better quality of life. Just remember that although the practice is safe and considered low impact, you must listen to your body. Stop and sit down if you feel dizzy, faint, or in pain. The benefit of attending in-person classes is the instructor can provide you with helpful modifications so you can continue to benefit without putting yourself at risk. In addition, Tai Chi is easily adaptable to various health conditions and physical limitations.
And when you do start to practice, remember these words from Lao Tzu, the great Chinese philosopher, “be as still as a mountain. Flow like a great river”.