Tai Chi is quickly becoming a household name in modern-day health and wellness. It has been described as both a “moving meditation” and a “moving medication”. This ancient art form of healing, relaxation and self-defense is a vital part of traditional Chinese medicine and migrated to the West over the past several decades. The mind-body practice of Tai Chi has been growing steadily in popularity throughout the world as both a wellness practice and an adjunct therapy in the treatment of disease. Reputable university and clinical studies, including Harvard Medical School, are validating Tai Chi for its many health benefits, safety in practice, and cost effectiveness.
The method of practice for Tai Chi, specifically as an exercise form, is a sequence of slow, coordinated movements. These choreographed forms come in five main styles, created and handed down through centuries of Chinese masters. The most common of these is the Yang style, from which the Chinese Sports Committee created the standard 24-movement short form, and making it the country’s official fitness program in the 1950’s. The practice is low-impact, and develops mental focus, effective breathing patterns along with a style of movement that cultivates relaxation throughout the body. The mindfulness and meditative components of the practice are nurtured as the mind, body, breathe and movements flow together from one movement to the next. Tai Chi is literally translated “supreme ultimate” and speaks to the complimentary creative forces in the universe: yin and yang. According to traditional Chinese medicine, when yin and yang come together they create inner movement. While practicing Tai Chi, these forces effectively move vital energy (“chi”) and blood through the body and create a more balanced and healthy person.
The benefits of Tai Chi are widespread. In terms of general wellness, the practice results in increased flexibility, muscle strength, coordination and balance. It has been shown to slow the effects of aging, boost immunity, decrease anxiety, lower blood pressure and provide a natural solution for stress. There is ongoing study in Tai Chi’s impact on brain plasticity, the development of specific areas of the brain, and memory. The initial findings suggest an improvement in mental focus, clarity, and memory as is also seen in mindfulness meditation practice. Further, Tai Chi is being used as an adjunct therapy in the presence of many disease states, including: Parkinson’s, Osteoarthritis, Heart Disease, Dementia, Chronic Pain, Fibromyalgia, and Cancer. Again, the general physical benefits above would apply in these conditions as well as the psychological and emotional advantages of improved mood, increased quality of life and the social benefits of exercising in a group setting with consistency.
The appropriate age to begin practicing Tai Chi is whatever age you happen to be! Because the movements are gentle on the joints and safe for all ages, there is a growing trend for use with the elderly population. One of the greatest benefits for this population is the improvement in balance and a decreased risk for falls. A recent review of ten independent studies by the University of Jaen, Spain, and published in the Journal of American Geriatric Society, reports a decreased rate of falls in the elderly by 43% after one year of Tai Chi practice. This is substantial and addresses the statistic that falls are the leading cause of death from injury among 65 years and older. Further, when an elderly person suffers a fall, their hospital stay is twice the length of the same aged patient admitted for any other reason. With the annual rate of falls at one-third of those 65 years and older, and two-thirds of those who fall will fall again within six months, Tai Chi is a practical, appropriate and cost-effective solution to this staggering problem.
My own discovery and practice of Tai Chi began 4 years ago. I was then aged forty-three, and not targeting prevention of falls, but exploring the aspect of meditative movement and exercise with regard for the whole person. I have been exposed to a wide range of movement, exercise, rehabilitation therapies, and art-forms in my life. I can honestly say that Tai Chi brings something new and deeply meaningful to the “arts and wellness” table. It cultivates a calm and balance at every level, while teaching the body to move in a way that releases tension and fatigue. Tai Chi is something I practice for all seasons: to enjoy a beautiful art form of movement, to center myself when feeling overwhelmed, to nurture myself in health, illness and injury, to relieve stress and strain in my mind and body, and to engage the amazing connection and communication that our minds and bodies share. I will be a student of Tai Chi for the rest of my life. It is not a practice of obtainment or arrival, but one of “play” and deepening discovery. You are invited to “play Tai Chi” and find out for yourself how valuable this practice can be.
Mary Gilliam, PT, MHS, CPI, CYI
Co-Owner of Arts and Wellness of Edenton