Over the last 20 years you may have noticed the emergence of early morning tai chi practices in your neighbourhood parks, beaches, and open spaces. Tai chi’s popularity is growing rapidly, largely due to the many health benefits linked to it and the ease with which everyone can participate.
In the West we tend to think of tai chi as the milder version of more aggressive martial arts such as kung fu. We are quick to assume the gentle practice of tai chi is more suitable for the de-conditioned or the elderly, while younger and fitter types partake in the more vigorous and combative martial arts and other athletic endeavours.
This erroneous thinking about tai chi has North Americans of all ages and abilities missing out on an extraordinarily powerful yet simple tool to enhance health, vitality, and longevity.
We can look to both ancient wisdom and modern science to confirm tai chi’s health benefits. Most studies show that this age-old Chinese practice has stood the test of time for good reason.
After being introduced to North America in the 1960s tai chi was quick to garner the attention of Western medical researchers, and a database of research on the health benefits of tai chi continues to swell today.
Tai chi is being used successfully to manage a variety of chronic conditions and to support general health and even happiness. Research on tai chi participation demonstrates:
- reduced pain associated with osteoarthritis
- reduced disability and fatigue in rheumatoid arthritis
- improved balance in older adults, reducing falls
- improved quality of life in persons suffering from fibromyalgia
- enhanced perceived health in cardiac rehabilitation patients
- reduced cardiovascular risk factors and improved cardiovascular fitness and flexibility in older adults
- increased glucose control in diabetics
- reduced psychological stress and improved self-image in teenage students
- reduced tension headaches in constant sufferers
So what exactly is tai chi?
Is it exercise, meditation, or a martial art? Tai chi or tai chi chuan (or tai-ji as in the Chinese spelling) is considered a body-mind exercise that incorporates elements of movement and meditation and is often referred to as the internal martial art.
Tai chi literally translates as “supreme ultimate being” or “supreme ultimate fist” and has been used in China for thousands of years, although it is said to have been developed in the 1300s in the forms we practise today.
There are several different styles of tai chi named for the families that developed and passed it on through generations. The three most common styles are the Chen, Yang, and Wu styles. Chen is the oldest style and is said to be the most demanding to learn. Yang is the most widely practised today.
All tai chi styles share the same philosophical framework and many points of practice. The ultimate goal is to cultivate life force, to exercise and condition the body, to understand the inner structure of the body, and to focus the mind. Each style includes attention to posture, breathing, and mental focus in a series of individual movements or forms that are linked in a continuous manner.
Tai chi requires no equipment and can be practised anywhere, anytime. Millions of people in China practise tai chi in parks or open spaces every morning. It is becoming an antidote to the high-paced stressful life because of its focus on creating harmony and balance. It slows us down, allows us to contemplate, to relax.
A different language
It is not fully known by what mechanism tai chi works such diverse healing miracles. The gentle tai chi movements use the muscles that promote the flow of blood and lymph, which increases the efficiency of the immune, digestive, endocrine, and other systems.
The meditative aspect brings mental calmness and initiates a relaxation response that reduces the heart rate and blood pressure. Deep breathing increases the flow of oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to the brain to energize and infuse vitality, promote deeper sleep, reduce anxiety, and improve mental clarity.
However, if you talk to any tai chi master or Eastern philosophy expert you will discover centuries-old explanations that leave Western science without the tools to assess the true nature of tai chi’s healing properties: it’s all in the qi (chi).
If you read the discussion of any scientific study on tai chi you will find repeated attempts to explain a mechanism for healing that laboratory vernacular simply cannot explain. We do know about blood, lymph, and neurotransmitters. We also know about muscles and oxygen. But we don’t know much about qi or how to measure it.
Qi is life
Qi is often referred to as life force, the magical elixir, vital, or universal energy. It is said that diminished stores of qi is indicated by poor health, and through qi cultivation one can build up stores of qi wealth.
Tai chi is recognized as one of the foremost ways to cultivate qi. The gentle, slow movement, deep breathing, and relaxation infusing flow of the tai chi forms is said to generate and move qi through the body, providing nourishment and healing in a way we just don’t know how to assess yet.
Qi is free
Tai chi instructors can be found delivering classes in a variety of settings. Since it can be done anywhere, you will find practices in parks, beaches, churches, schools, and even parking lots.
Your local community centre or YMCA are great places to start, as many offer registered tai chi classes. Martial arts and yoga studios are also great places to look. Impromptu classes are often free, so stumbling upon an unadvertised one in your neighbourhood is also a possibility.
Let’s not hold our breath while Western scientists continue their billion-dollar quest to put health in a pill. It just might be worth wandering down to the park at sunrise to join a tai chi class. All of those radiant and glowing participants might be onto something.
Tai chi in Canada
International Taoist Tai Chi Society of Canada
Offers a listing of beginner classes, instructor training, and workshops across Canada—taoist.org
Canadian Tai Chi Academy
Canadian Organization of Traditional Taiji Quan Associations (COTTQA)