Breathe in, breathe out. Let your chest rise, now let it fall. Shift your body weight to your left leg and stretch your arms out to the left, now slowly sway your arms and your body weight over to the right. Complementary movements, mental and physical balance, yin and yang; these are the essence of tai chi.
According to Chinese medicine, the universe is run by a single principle, the Tao, which is made up of the yin and the yang; which are two opposing, yet complementary principles. For example, the yin includes femaleness, the moon, cold, and matter; while maleness, the sun, heat, and energy are relatively yang.
"Chi" refers to our energy, vitality, or life force. And " tai chi" is translated as "all encompassing" or "supreme ultimate," because of its embodiment of both the yin and the yang. "Chuan," often used in the name, translates to "fist" or "boxing," and signifies exercise.
Tai Chi is sometimes described as "moving meditation." Through the slow and careful movements of tai chi, people learn to focus on each motion and become aware of the processes in their bodies and mind. The goal is to combine thoughts and movement, which in some, can even generate spiritual feelings.
In Chinese medicine, pain or sickness is believed to occur when the flow of the chi is blocked, and yin and yang energies are out of balance. When the chi is circulating freely, physical symptoms disappear. The joints are seen as gates that control the flow of chi; the slow, gentle, swaying movements, deep breathing, and mental focus of tai chi are designed to relieve tension, open up these joints, and allow chi to move effortlessly throughout the body.
Tai chi is claimed to be good for all health concerns. A number of renowned tai chi masters are said to have experienced sickness in the past from which they could find no relief until they began to practice tai chi. Such reports, however, are merely anecdotes and may not represent actual benefit.
The scientific research done thus far has involved small groups of people. Some of these studies are promising and may suggest specific benefits. According to most, but not all studies, tai chi can decrease the risk of falling in elderly people. Some studies have also suggested that tai chi may lower blood pressure, improve symptoms in fibromyalgia, and decrease depression symptoms.
Tai chi involves virtually no impact and no equipment, and it requires only your motivation and perseverance. With the supervision of a qualified instructor, people of any physical condition can begin to practice with little concern for injury. It may be best to start with a group class. To find a teacher you will be compatible with, ask members of different classes about their teachers.
There is a great variety of styles of tai chi and an even greater variety of teaching styles. In some traditional classes, there is little verbal communication and the students learn by watching. In other classes, the teacher may speak throughout and use imagery to describe body movements ("let your spine hang gently like a necklace of pearls") and to guide meditation ("let the energy flow through you like water down a stream").
While there are certification programs for tai chi instructors, a certificate is no guarantee of a person's skill or experience. Ask potential instructors about their specific style, years of practice, and education. In addition, observe several classes before deciding to join one.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
National Library of Medicine
Tai chi. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. EBSCO Health Library website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/healthLibrary. Updated July 25, 2012. Accessed November 14, 2013.
Tai Chi: An introduction. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine website. Available at: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/taichi/introduction.htm. Updated August 2010. Accessed November 14, 2013.
Yang Style Tai Chi website. Available at: http://www.chebucto.ns.ca/Philosophy/Taichi. Accessed November 14 ,2013.
Last reviewed November 2013 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.