The search for eternal life has gone on… eternally. Juan Ponce de León sought the secret to longevity in a mythical fountain of youth. In contrast, Chinese Taoist sages looked for the secret of longevity in mind-body exercises, called Tai Chi (Taiji) and Chi Kung (Qigong). Research shows that particular mind-body activities can, in fact, increase your resistance to aging.
The Taoist immortal Zhang San Feng is reputed to have lived for hundreds of years by practicing the exercise he developed called Tai Chi (formally known as Tai Chi Chuan or Tai Chi Fist). It is an ancient practice of energy cultivation and body development steeped in traditions of Chinese meditation, breathing exercises and martial arts. Tai Chi is actually a link between Qigong (Chi Kung) breathwork exercises and kung fu body training. As such, it is a mind-body discipline that strengthens mind and body while cultivating life-force energy, keeping muscles toned and tendons relaxed.
Myth and legend aside, there are significant reasons to practice Tai Chi:
1. It helps develop balance, preventing falls and hip fractures later in life.
2. It helps build bone density, preventing brittle bones in old age or for women going through menopause.
3. It helps keep muscles toned and fit, preventing flaccidity and weakness.
4. It helps clear and quiet the mind, reducing stress and anxiety while promoting focus and concentration.
5. It helps regulate the lungs and heart without taxing them, improving natural feelings of wellness and detoxification.
6. It helps burn calories without taxing the joints or stressing the heart, improving fitness levels while aiding in slow and steady weight loss.
7. It helps restore proper range of motion in the wrists, elbows, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles, preventing muscle spasms, neuralgic pain and back pain.
8. It helps keep the body active at a sustained rate for a period of time, moving blood, improving lymph drainage, moving fluids throughout the body and being a source of invigoration.
To be healthy, especially as we age, we need to keep fit and maintain a certain level of flexibility and mobility. Unfortunately, while many of us had an active period from childhood through our 20s, later life found us sitting at work, raising children, working too many hours and lacking time to care for ourselves. There are many reasons adults don’t exercise, the most common being not enough time and money. Well, after the form is learned, Tai Chi is free and can be done almost anywhere.
Quite a few studies have been carried out on the health benefits of practicing Tai Chi, of which there are five main “family” branches of exercises: Chen, Yang, Wu/Hao, Wu and Sun. All are equally good overall, with Wu being best suited to those with arthritis because of the way the hands and wrists are not bent as in the other styles. There are also “long forms” and “short forms,” referring to the number of movements in the sequences.
The short form is fine for many people and easier to learn. However, for those wanting the best of what Tai Chi offers, the long form contains more movements, takes longer to do and is more interesting overall. I like to think of this art as a life study. It combines intellectual activity (learning, remembering and perfecting the sequence), physical activity (the movements and postures themselves), moving meditation (clearing the mind and aligning the body while in motion), and Qigong energy work (combining and coordinating mind, breath and posture in motion).
Because you are holding postures with bent arms and bent knees, Tai Chi is an isometric exercise. However, because you are also moving between postures and connecting them, Tai Chi is also isotonic. This combination makes Tai Chi able to increase muscle tone and strength while also laying new bone to strengthen bone density, all while improving balance, or “root” as it is known. Thus, Tai Chi is terrific for those with or at risk for osteoporosis and osteopenia, reducing chances of falls and broken bones or fractured hips and pelvis.
New studies conducted by Katherine Kerr, a Tai Chi teacher at Harvard Medical School, have found that Tai Chi may help reduce or prevent disorders of memory and brain function.
“Brain plasticity arising from repeated training may be relevant, since we know that brain connections are ‘sculpted’ by daily experience and practice,” says Kerr. “Tai Chi is a very interesting form of training because it combines a low-intensity aerobic exercise with a complex, learned, motor sequence. Meditation, motor learning, and attentional focus have all been shown in numerous studies to be associated with training-related changes — including, in some cases, changes in actual brain structure — in specific cortical regions.”
Tai Chi Practice
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) estimates that nearly 3 million people in the United States practice Tai Chi today. What’s more, the organization supports the claims that Tai Chi is effective in helping those with “cardiovascular disease, fall prevention, bone health, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis of the knee, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic heart failure, cancer survivors, depression in older people, and symptoms of fibromyalgia.” Tai Chi has also been shown to strengthen the immune system.
Tai Chi is known as the “supreme ultimate fist” because it is a direct expression of the Chinese theory of yin and yang. Tai Chi embraces elements of Qigong (breathing and stillness) with kung fu (exercise and movement). It is, therefore, neither too vigorous nor too passive. It is the Goldilocks exercise: just right! Tai Chi is a true mind/body or internal/external form of wellness practice that has so much to offer that, in my opinion, everyone should do it.