You likely have seen photos or video from China showing large groups in people exercising in public places. The exercise consists of very slow, controlled movements, almost resembling a ballet or dance choreographed in slow motion. You might be surprised to find that this exercise – practiced widely by all ages, even the quite elderly – is an ancient martial art. Known as t’ai chi ch’uan, but usually referred to in English simply as tai chi, it has become one of the most popular forms of exercise among the Chinese. In recent years, its popularity has spread worldwide and tai chi is now practiced around the world.
What is Tai Chi?
“T’ai chi ch’uan” can be expressed several ways in English, including “supreme ultimate fist” “supreme ultimate boxing” or “great extremes boxing”. Not only a fighting technique, tai chi also is practiced as a demonstration art form, for health reasons, and to increase longevity. There are several forms of tai chi training, depending upon the goal of the practitioner. Traditional tai chi training involves five elements:
- Taolu – Solo exercises using hands, feet, and weapons
- Shanshou – Self-defense routines
- Tuishou – Responses and reactions to opponents’ movements
- Neigong – Breathing and meditation
- Qigong – Awareness and control of breathing and movement
The slow, controlled public exercises one sees in China are an example of qigong. Not all tai chi exercise is slow, however. The most widely practiced styles of tai chi all feature a faster set of exercises and movements in addition to their slowly paced movement routines.
The origins of tai chi are a subject of dispute, finding popular mythology at odds with the historical record. Tradition holds that the art was invented by an alchemist named Zhang San Feng sometime between 900 and 1300 A.D. However, this name does not appear in any written Chinese records until the late 1600s A.D. The earliest written source that claims Zhang San Feng originated tai chi is dated anther 200 years later. A later edition of this same source, however, asserts that the identity of the originator of tai chi is unknown. In fact, before the mid-1800s, the art form did not even have a name and was practiced by a relative handful of individuals.
Tai chi remained a rather obscure martial art until several Chinese martial arts masters began to tout its health benefits in the early 1900s. They and their students helped spread the art to a much wider circle of participants throughout China. During the 1920s the Chinese military adopted tai chi as part of its standard fitness training, although this involved the faster moving martial form of the art. Tai chi later spread into Chinese civilian life with the development of slow-movement forms of the art. Greater Chinese openness to the West beginning in the 1990s and early 2000s exposed a much wider audience to tai chi, and the practice is now more popular than ever.
Health Benefits of Tai Chi
Traditional Chinese medical practitioners have long claimed that tai chi is effective in promoting health and combating a number of chronic conditions. Modern western experimental studies have confirmed many of these claims. Not surprisingly, research has shown that tai chi helps promote greater balance and flexibility and reduce the risk of falls in elderly individuals. However, many people are startled to learn that tai chi burns more calories than surfing and almost as much as downhill skiing. A program of tai chi paired with yoga has even been shown to reduce levels of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. Other studies have shown the potential for tai chi to boost immune function in response to certain viruses.
A number of studies also have linked tai chi to pain relief. A 2008 study from Tufts University found that tai chi provided better pain relief than regular stretching exercises for elderly patients with severe osteoarthritis of the knee. A study published in the 2010 New England Journal of Medicine found that tai chi provided similar pain reliving benefits for a group of patients suffering from fibromyalgia.
Proponents of tai chi cite stress-reduction as a principal benefit of the art, and recent medical studies support their beliefs. A 2010 U.S. government review of seven large-scale studies of tai chi concluded that it “significantly increased psychological well-being including reduction of stress, anxiety, and depression, and enhanced mood in community-dwelling healthy participants and in patients with chronic conditions.” Other studies have suggested that tai chi may help regulate production of hormones that affect mood and heart rate.
One of the most appealing aspects of tai chi is that any reasonably healthy individual can participate and share in its benefits. The extremely low impact nature of tai chi, along with its slow and controlled movements, allows people of any age and many different physical conditions to take part. As the studies cited early demonstrate, you don’t need to become a triathlete, marathoner, or “extreme” athlete to lose weight, get fit, and improve your physical and mental well-being. Practicing tai chi can help you achieve all of these goals in a way that fits your life situation.
If you are interested in learning more about tai chi or taking it up actively, it’s best to start by talking with someone experienced in the art form. In South Florida, Dr. Jorge Bordenave includes tai chi as part of a multifaceted, integrated approach to health care and maintenance that deals with the health of the body, mind, and spirit. Contact Dr. Bordenave today to find out how this ancient fighting form can help YOU return to fighting form as well.
Posted by Axiom Health Care Marketing