Martial arts are not always violent. Tai Chi is an example of that.
The health benefits of tai chi are many. (Shutterstock)

Tai chi is a martial art, a defined system of movements designed for combat, that originated in ancient China. Like most martial arts, tai chi was developed as a form of self-defense, but the exact origins of the practice are unknown. Medical News Today indicates the concepts of tai chi go back to the beginning of written Chinese history from Taoism and Confucianism, and the founder of the martial art is believed to be Zhang Sanfeng.

“In every movement, every part of the body must be light and agile and strung together. The postures should be without breaks. Motion should be rooted in the feet, released through the legs, directed by the waist and expressed by the fingers. Substantial and insubstantial movements must be clearly differentiated,” Sanfeng is quoted as saying.

This harmony of movement is at the crux of the tai chi discipline, and is one of the reasons why it is often referred to as form of meditation and a “gentle” combat style. Aside from self-defense, there are a number of health benefits to tai chi, and the research into this field is on-going.

What the research says about tai chi

“A growing body of carefully conducted research is building a compelling case for tai chi as an adjunct to standard medical treatment for the prevention and rehabilitation of many conditions commonly associated with age,”  Peter M. Wayne, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Tai Chi and Mind-Body Research Program at Harvard Medical School’s Osher Research Center, said in a statement.

Tai chi combines the physical benefits of aerobic conditioning with the mental benefits of meditation, making it an ideal supplemental aid for individuals looking to improve their health or battle chronic illness. As what is considered a mind-body practice, experts feel it is instrumental in improving the quality of life for many individuals.

Unlike other exercises, tai chi movements are usually circular and never forced; Harvard experts indicate “the muscles are relaxed rather than tensed, the joints are not fully extended or bent, and connective tissues are not stretched. Tai chi can be easily adapted for anyone, from the most fit to people confined to wheelchairs or recovering from surgery.

The research supporting the application of tai chi for supplemental therapy includes:

  •  NEJM (New England Journal of Medicine) research indicated patients with Parkinson’s disease who practiced tai chi saw benefits related to improved walking ability, posture, and fewer falls.
  • Archives of Internal Medicine published a study noting patients with chronic heart failure experienced a better quality of life and mood with regular tai chi.
  • Another NEJM article found individuals with fibromyalgia reported relief from joint pains as well as other symptoms after regularly practicing tai chi.
  • British Journal of Sports Medicine published research that demonstrated patients with type 2 diabetes could manage blood sugar levels and improve immune response when regularly practicing tai chi.
  • The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry indicates weekly tai chi with a standard depression treatment in depressed elderly adults could be very effective at treating symptoms of depression.

    Tai chi is good for seniors.
    The benefits of tai chi in seniors are proven through numerous bodies of research. (Shutterstock)

How do you perform tai chi?

Ideally, tai chi should be practiced with instruction from a martial artist in the discipline; it is, however, possible to purchase instructional videos to get started. A basic tai chi session will likely include:

  • Stretching with easy motions, such as shoulder circles, turning the head from side to side, or rocking back and forth.
  • Instruction in short or long forms–sequences of movements that flow together. Individuals just starting out will likely work short forms and then gradually combine them once they have been committed to memory.
  • Qigong, or breathing exercises designed to promote energy flow. The idea is to relax the mind and mobilize the body’s energy while standing, sitting, or lying down.

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