What is Tai Chi?
Tai Chi is a graceful flowing exercise. It consists of a series of standing postures connected together through stepping movements. The number of postures varies from 108 in traditional long forms to shorter forms with 20 to 40 movements. Tai chi is sometimes called “meditation in motion” due to the relaxation and calm people can experience while practicing it. Harvard Women’s Health Watch wrote “it might as well be called medication in motion” due to the numerous health benefits Tai Chi can provide when done on a regular basis.
Tai Chi was developed in China over 1,000 years ago. Since it is so old, Tai Chi’s precise history is uncertain. There are many stories about how it originated. Tai Chi evolved from the ancient self-healing practices of qigong and is now considered a category of qigong. Tai Chi was used as a martial art for defense. The 5 main systems of Tai Chi are Chen, Yang, Wu, Hao, and Sun. Each system is named after the family that created it. Chen style is the oldest and Sun is the newest with a 100 year history.
Tai Chi is gaining popularity because of its many health benefits. In fact, no other single exercise can do as much for physical and mental well-being. Some of the measurable health benefits of Tai Chi include:
How can one exercise do so many things? One of the reasons is Tai Chi’s powerful ability to reduce stress by way of the body’s natural relaxation response. Stress causes or contributes to approximately 80% of disease in this country. This is because stress triggers the flight-or-flight response. The fight-or-flight response prepares the body to react to a threat by either running or fighting. It was necessary for primitive people to survive. The fight-or-flight response causes the body to release chemicals that increase heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension. It is still useful today in dealing with emergency situations. However, chronic stress can cause negative long-term effects. In the 1960’s, Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard University discovered the relaxation response while researching high blood pressure. The relaxation response reverses the fight-or-flight response. The relaxation response causes heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension to decrease. It can be triggered in several ways including breathing techniques, meditation, exercise, repetitive prayer, and imagery. All of these techniques have 2 things in common: the repetition of a word, sound, prayer, image or physical activity and also clearing the mind of thoughts.
In addition to reducing stress, Tai Chi helps the muscles, bones, and joints. It also improves coordination and balance. Falls in older people can cause significant injuries and possible death. Complications from fall injuries are one of the top 10 causes of death in older Americans. In a study done by the Center for Disease Control and several major universities, the people who practiced balance training other than Tai Chi fell and injured themselves twice as often as the Tai Chi practitioners.
Tai Chi is a low impact weight -bearing exercise that increases bone density. Muscles of both the upper and lower body are exercised and strengthened by Tai Chi. The emphasis on relaxing the upper body and taking deep breaths allows the muscles to release tension. This in turn relieves pressure on the vertebrae caused by muscle tension. Without the muscle tension, the spine and also other bones and joints can realign.
All of the major joints are exercised in Tai Chi causing better circulation of blood and fluids. The result is increased lubrication and healing. The rotational movements work out calcium deposits that can decrease mobility. A NIH sponsored review concluded that Tai Chi can be safely recommended to people with osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia. Anyone with arthritis or knee problems should be careful about what form they practice.
The National Council on Aging chartered Roger Jahnke, OMD, Director of the Institute of Integral Qigong and Tai Chi to create Tai Chi Easy in 2004. Tai Chi Easy presents powerful health enhancement practices from Chinese medicine for healthy aging in a simple and easy to learn way. It includes 5 movements from Yang style Tai Chi. The unique teaching method of Tai Chi Easy helps people gain the health benefits of Tai Chi quickly.
This article was originally published in Natural Awakening (Wayne County, MI edition) in January 2013
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