5 Reasons to Learn Tai Chi

It’s never too late to learn this ancient discipline—and to enhance both your physical and mental health in the process.

November 23, 2009

Tai chi's relaxing movements are easy on the body but powerful for your health.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—The ancient art of tai chi—a form of exercise that combines slow, deliberate movements with meditation and deep breathing to connect and uplift both the body and the mind—is receiving new interest from a wealth of sources, the Western medical establishment included. In fact, a new study performed by researchers at Tufts University Medical School in Boston found that just two hours of tai chi a week for three months significantly reduced pain and improved both knee function and mental health (reducing depression and anxiety) in people with osteoarthritis of the knee.


THE DETAILS: This study comes on the heels of a host of others that have shown that people who learn tai chi gain improvements in strength, balance, flexibility, and endurance; it reduces pain; and it eases depression and anxiety in people with chronic diseases such as arthritis, osteoporosis, and diabetes—all through a series of slow, deceptively simple movements.

"While not physically difficult, tai chi engages all the tissues of the body, the bones, the tendons, every joint," says Bruce McFarlane, MD, a family practitioner in Ontario, Canada, a medical advisor to the Taoist Tai Chi Society of Canada, and the medical director of their health recovery program, through which people with a great variety of medical difficulties seek therapy through tai chi. "The movements are new to us in our culture, so there is a focus on acquiring a new physical skill that involves the mind and distracts us from our usual worries. It's graceful, slow-moving, and quite relaxing." And it works.

WHAT IT MEANS: A form of exercise that's relaxing, easy on the body, and has documented health benefits? What's not to like? Tai chi classes usually last about an hour, during which you'll perform anywhere from 20 to 100 tai chi movements. The teacher encourages students to perform the movements slowly, in a meditative manner, and to breathe deeply as they move. It's this combination, says Dr. McFarlane, who practices the Taoist form of tai chi, which is focused strictly on health improvement, that creates feelings of relaxation and mastery that are empowering and health-promoting.

Here are five further reasons to give tai chi a try:

#1: It’s for everyone. "I would recommend it to young and old, to people who are physically active and to the sedentary, to people in good health and those dealing with chronic illness—to everyone, literally," says Dr. McFarlane. "Physical activity and stress reduction are important to everyone, and those are the very benefits afforded by tai chi without the risk of injury carried by many other physical pursuits."

#2: It’s inexpensive. Tai chi doesn’t require any additional equipment or a special venue, just comfortable shoes and clothing, assures Dr. McFarlane. Taoist Society instructors, accredited by the society and required to maintain their accreditation yearly, are unpaid (the Taoist Society itself is a nonprofit organization). To learn more about the Taoist Society and find a chapter and classes near you, go to www.taoist.org. You can also find inexpensive classes at hospitals and communities; other groups that certify teachers include the Institute of Integral Qigong and Tai Chi and the American Tai Chi and Qigong Association.

#3: It's easy to pick up. According to the Taoist Society, it takes about three to four months to learn the basic movements and to be able to do them with a group. After that, you should be able to practice on your own, as well as in a group, and learn additional, more advanced movements.

#4: It's communal. Taoist tai chi is structured around chapters and clubs, and the sense of community that fosters is deliberate. "When you join our society and learn tai chi, you are surrounded by people who are learning something new as well, and you are encouraged to help them just as they are encouraged to help you," says Dr. McFarlane. "Being useful to other people is hugely beneficial to your own health—that's been scientifically proven—and it's a Taoist tradition. Taoists believe that if you're helpful to other people, your own health will improve."

#5: It's empowering. "One of the striking things about this discipline is its intrinsic—and proven—belief that you can have a powerful impact on your own health," says Dr. McFarlane. "We in Western medicine don't have a whole lot of answers for people with chronic disease. Appendicitis, we can fix—but chronic disease is another matter." Tai chi awakens a person's belief in their ability to help themselves, Dr. McFarlane says. "And that's an incredibly powerful tool for healing."

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