Where Does Tai Chi Come From?
Tai Chi (also known as Tai Chi Chuan) dates back to 13th-century China. It is a gentle form of martial art, that focuses on light movements and deep breathing, just like yoga. Relaxation and mindfulness make up part of the process. You practice Tai Chi by making slow, graceful movements, flowing from one to another. It looks simple but it does require flexibility, strength and balance - skills that you'll improve through repetition and commitment.
Tai Chi differs from most other types of exercise mainly because the emphasis is on relaxation of the muscles rather than tension. The joints are never fully extended or bent, and none of your muscles or tissues should come under any kind of strain.
Tai Chi is said to unblock and encourage the proper flow of Qi, which is an energy force thought to flow through the body. It also keeps your yin and yang in harmony.
The Health Benefits of Tai Chi
Tai Chi appeals to many people because there is no need for specialist equipment or a trip to the gym. Tai Chi can be practiced in the park, in your bedroom or in the garden. It is accessible for all ages and can dramatically boost your health. Tai Chi is slow and gentle and doesn't leave you breathless, but it improves: muscle strength, flexibility, balance, and also gives you some aerobic conditioning.
A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine demonstrated that Tai Chi was linked to improvement in physical capacity and muscle strength in many conditions, including pain and stiffness symptoms in people with osteoarthritis, and improvements in breathlessness in those people with COPD.1 Some research suggests that Tai Chi can reduce the risk of falls among older adults.
It is thought for example that those who practice Tai Chi have a reduced risk of dementia, because it increases brain volume. Tai Chi boosts the brain because it isn't just about the physical exercise you get from the movement; the mind is also exercised. A requirement for Tai Chi is to focus your mind on each movement, and remember the elements that form the complex motor sequence of the short or long form.
The practice of Tai Chi can also help with stress, anxiety and depression and lead to a generally calmer you, thanks to your absorption in the practice which allows you to let your worries drift away.
What to Expect at a Tai Chi Class
Dress comfortably in loose-fitting clothes that won't restrict your movement, and wear lightweight shoes, or go barefoot if you prefer. You should be able to feel the ground beneath your soles.
You'll find that a Tai Chi class will include several parts. In the first place you will be doing a warm-up. This is taken at an easy pace, using fluid motions, such as rocking in place, turning the head, shoulder circle, lifting the arms up to one side, etc. with the aim of loosening your muscles and joints. You'll focus on your breathing and the way your body feels.
Next you'll work through a series of Tai Chi forms. Forms are sets of movements, and these may include as many as a dozen movements in a short form, and hundreds on a long form. As a beginner you are likely to be doing short form Tai Chi at first, with small and slow movements.
You may move on to Qigong (or Chi Kung also known as 'breath work') for a few minutes. Here, you combine gentle breathing with movement in order to relax the mind, and regroup. Qigong can be practiced when you're sitting, lying down or standing.
There are different styles of Tai Chi, such as Yang, Chen and Wu, but you'll find that many teachers combine several styles. The main differences lie in speed of movements and body posture.
Who Is Tai Chi Suitable For?
The great thing about Tai Chi is that it is suitable for people of all ages and of all fitness levels. By its very nature Tai Chi is slow and progressive, meaning that anyone can have a go, including the elderly and infirm. Those people who cannot do high-intensity aerobic exercise for example, can do Tai Chi because it is a low-impact exercise and doesn't put too much pressure on your bones and joints so it is ideal for older people. Tai Chi can also be adapted for wheelchair users, or others with mobility issues or other disabilities.
How to Get Started
If you live here in Spain, then you have the perfect climate in which to practice Tai Chi outdoors pretty much all year round. Of course, if you can't get outside for whatever reason doing Tai Chi inside is just as beneficial.
It's always a good idea to watch a class or attend a free taster session before you commit yourself to a course of sessions, and you could of course teach yourself from books, DVDs and videos you can find on YouTube. It is always better to learn the basics from a proper Tai Chi instructor of course and then continue with your own practice after that, if you wish.
Almost anyone can practice Tai Chi, but it is worth checking with your doctor if you have any existing medical conditions.