Updated: Jul 29
At university I practised some of the Japanese martial arts and enjoyed the experience. However, next door to us was another class, the students practising flowing, softer movements - tai chi. Honestly, while it looked pretty, I was a little sceptical about its effectiveness for self-defence and didn't even think about its relevance to health. It was not until much later that I had the inclination and opportunity to enrol in a class and experience tai chi’s benefits.
Until I tried tai chi for myself it seemed to be for the elderly only. Often a social event rather than a wise investment into some sweat inducing, exercise. That being said, tai chi has been shown to reduce hypertension, improve mood, sleep and reduce stress - health benefits that many of us (irrespective of age group) are looking for. At the suggestion of my partner, with her reassurances that it would not be a lesson in slow motion arm waving, we joined a local tai chi class.
Shortly thereafter, weekly on a Thursday night, we found ourselves standing amongst the magnificent trees of the Botanic Gardens with a group ranging from 30 to 70 years of age. To my surprise, we commenced with the practice of qigong, no tai chi in sight at all. Qigong taught us how to collect and flow chi (energy), through various forms of standing and breathing exercises. If you think this is a bit woo, stay with me, we will discuss further below. For now think of qigong as being similar to breath work.
After a month or so we progressed to learning the initial sequence of tai chi: tai chi 24. Comprising a standardised set of 24 moves, this provides a basic vocabulary of movements that are developed further as one progresses. No push-hands or sparring for us beginners, first a solid foundation in the basics. After tai chi 24 comes '108' and the opportunity to push-hands, practice with swords and other weapons, although every school will have its own programme or timeline.
At first much of my concentration was focused on simply following the instructions, learning the movements, in the correct directions. Placing the feet properly, turning, moving torso, arms and head. Repetition and building muscle memory. And surely, step by step, making progress through the 24 movements. I was surprised at how working out at a low impact 30% physical effort required so much focus and brought so much benefit. Surely one needs to be moving more, having a higher heart rate to get benefit? After each session we both felt good: the gentle stretches and movements left us feeling energised, we slept deeper.
Different schools, styles and instructors bring different skills and philosophies to the practice. For some, tai chi takes the form of a slow dance class combined with healthy social engagement. This in itself is health promoting even if doesn’t seem to be ‘authentic’ tai chi. For others, tai chi provides a deep level of engagement in physical and mental discipline.
From my perspective, the main areas where tai chi has provided me with benefit are as follows:
Body Awareness. Before I started practicing tai chi, I was fairly disconnected from my body even though I thought that I had good body awareness. As part of my normal exercise regimen I pay attention to aches and pains or even to where I feel strong, but tai chi has helped me to become more aware of my body's alignment and how it moves. I am now more aware of tension in my muscles and where I'm holding onto stress. This awareness has helped me to improve my posture and become more mobile. Tai chi has taught me to relax and soften myself while still maintaining strength.
Proprioception. Proprioception is the body's ability to sense its position in space. It's important for balance, coordination and movement. As we age, our proprioception declines. Tai chi can help to improve proprioception by challenging the body to maintain balance and coordination in different positions. This has helped improve my overall mobility, an area of that has become increasingly important to me and an increasing focus of my physical training.
Mental focus. Tai chi is a mindful practice that requires focus and concentration. As I practice tai chi, I find that I become calmer and more focused, sometimes I get lost in the movement, in the moment. I'm less likely to get distracted by thoughts or worries. This mental focus has helped me to improve my mental wellbeing and reduce stress levels. It has also helped me improved my form in other exercises, push-ups and so forth. To concentrate on higher quality, more effective, movements.
I think that everyone in our class shared a similar experience in improving their health although this was seen in different ways. One elderly classmate, who at the outset could hardly stand on one leg and was unable to squat, improved her mobility dramatically over the course of a few months. From struggling with basic, life essential movement to becoming independent, physically autonomous. A true physical transformation. Others seemed to really enjoy the shared learning experience and group camaraderie. The class was a weekly, for some twice weekly, social health activity.
An integral part of our school’s practice was to channel chi, although this is not a priority for other classes or instructors. Some de-emphasise the chi element of the practice and focus on the movements and exercise. For those who struggle with the concept of chi, if it exists or not, I would argue that (at the outset) it does not matter. Don’t let this stop you from taking the opportunity to experience the benefits of tai chi.
Tai chi’s focus on correct movement, form and ‘chi flow’ is similar to how professional athletes master their own form and technique in making a perfect throw, swing or punch. In psychological terms this is similar to practising visualisation. In physiological terms the focus on biomechanics maximises physical energy transfer and minimises energy leakage. The result? Power.
I also compare the mental practice of flowing chi through the body as being similar to practising body scanning – a form of mindfulness. Bringing awareness to each body part, listening to your body, learning how it feels.
Tai Chi 24:
The practical application of tai chi:
I highly recommend trying tai chi. Its popular image as being an exercise for the elderly does not do it justice. Tai chi can benefit everyone, irrespective of age, so why wait until retirement to start? Whether you are looking for social connection, improving sleep, mobility or decreasing stress and high blood pressure - tai chi can help. Without having to run. If you want to delve deeper into developing chi or even the martial aspects of the practice - there are classes or schools that can provide. Find a class that you vibe with and give it a go. Tai chi (and qigong) can be practised anywhere: at home, on the beach, indoors and at home; no equipment required.
While I no longer go to a regular class, I have incorporated elements of qigong and tai chi to my regular exercise regimen, to the benefit of my overall health and wellbeing.
Tai Chi, click here
Qigong, click here
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Huston P, McFarlane B. Health benefits of tai chi: What is the evidence? Can Fam Physician. 2016 Nov;62(11):881-890. PMID: 28661865; PMCID: PMC9844554.