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Natural Awakenings

Why T’ai Chi Works: A More Healthful Form of Exercise

Apr 01, 2008 03:00AM ● By Martin H. Smith

On April 30, cities throughout the United States will stage events and exhibitions celebrating the 10th annual World T’ai Chi and Qigong Day (pronounced tie-chee and chee-goong). “It’s a Chinese martial art that anyone can do,” says author, life coach and T’ai chi expert David-Dorian Ross, who won a world silver medal and two bronzes for the United States in T’ai chi performance.

Ross explains that T’ai chi is a form of qigong, although an untrained eye might not see the difference between the two. “Like Kleenex and tissue, all T’ai chi is a form of qigong, but not all qigong is T’ai chi,” he says.

T’ai chi classes are introducing increasing numbers of newcomers to the sport as people of all ages and fitness levels discover this relatively gentle pursuit. Rather than a competitive combat sport, like judo or karate, T’ai chi is designed to enhance individual physical and emotional well-being. It may best be described as a combination of moving yoga and meditation.

“T’ai chi combines fundamentals of self-defense with beautiful and continuous, low-impact rhythmic movement. The result is a comprehensive exercise routine that adapts itself to personal needs,” observes Ross, who owns Full Circle Fitness in Corona del Mar, California. “T’ai chi gently develops strength, expands flexibility, increases cardiovascular efficiency and improves coordination and range of motion.”

In total, T’ai chi encompasses more than 100 possible movements and positions. Most “forms”, as they are known, may be performed by anybody. Faster-paced and more intense moves primarily benefit highly fit and experienced students. Each position relies on rhythmic patterns of movements that are coordinated with breathing exercises. Each combination of movements and positions can take up to 20 minutes to perform. Delightfully apt names describe the overall action, such as Carry Tiger to the Mountain, Grasp the Bird’s Tail or Hands Strum the Lute.

Initially, routines may seem a bit daunting, with a great deal to remember, but students learn through repetition. Along the way, stress, anxiety and tension melt away, and the effects may last for days after a session.

A few years ago, the Archives of Internal Medicine carried a report by researchers who analyzed 47 different studies on the effects of T’ai chi in people with chronic health problems. Reported health benefits included improvements in balance, flexibility and strength gains, as well as cardiovascular, respiratory and immune function. Arthritis symptoms also improved.

Older adults, especially, find T’ai chi appealing because its low-impact movements put minimal stress on muscles and joints. Regular practice enhances mental and physical alertness. Even people who use walkers and have impaired motor skills or suffer from back pain, arthritis or multiple sclerosis can benefit. One study also found that T’ai chi boosted resistance to the shingles virus in older adults.

Other studies suggest that T’ai chi is especially beneficial for women, because it can help prevent osteoporosis, slow bone loss in women after menopause, and reduce the number of falls. It’s also been found to ease symptoms of fibromyalgia.

Regular practice of T’ai chi improves everyday physical functioning and quality of sleep, and then goes on to promote feelings of self-esteem, thereby helping to counter eating disorders. Of course, it also burns calories, aiding in weight loss.

More, “T’ai chi does all these things in a way that can be more healthful than many other forms of exercise, without forcing or straining,” notes Ross.

To learn about World T’ai Chi Day activities and events and find local classes, visit

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