Tai chi, with its poetic and evocative movement names such as “Parting The Wild Horse’s Mane,” “Wave Hands Like Clouds,” and “Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain,” is a deceptively complex practice that has gained popularity worldwide. With approximately 250 million practitioners globally, tai chi is considered one of the most popular physical activities. Originating in 17th century China as a martial art, tai chi distinguishes itself from combat-oriented practices like karate or taekwondo by focusing on quiet strength and gentle movements, making it accessible to people of all ages and those recovering from injuries.
Shirley Chock, a former financial professional who started practicing tai chi in her 20s after tearing her ACL during wushu kung fu training, found tai chi to be a low-impact method for rehabilitation. Additionally, she discovered its benefits in managing stress and conflict. After becoming an experienced practitioner, Chock began teaching tai chi and eventually took over the Aiping Tai Chi school in Connecticut, where she had trained.
The mental and physical benefits of tai chi are numerous. According to Peter Wayne, the director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and author of The Harvard Medical School Guide To Tai Chi, tai chi combines mental focus, physical effort, and deep breathing to enhance strength, flexibility, and mindfulness. The upright and less demanding poses in tai chi, compared to yoga, are believed to translate better into everyday activities such as lifting groceries or opening doors. The practice of tai chi, which involves both movement and deep breathing, differs from passive techniques like meditation and has been shown to calm the nervous system.
Research indicates that tai chi improves balance, mobility, and fall prevention, even in individuals with neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. It also reduces strain on joints by strengthening the surrounding muscles, making it beneficial for managing knee and hip osteoarthritis, as recommended by the American College of Rheumatology. Additionally, studies suggest that practicing tai chi two to three times per week can lead to improvements in depression, anxiety, psychological well-being, and cognitive flexibility.
Depending on an individual’s fitness level, tai chi can provide a workout comparable to a brisk walk. While the practice carries few risks, individuals with chronic health problems should consult with their doctor before starting tai chi. The name “tai chi” encompasses both the physical practice and the underlying philosophy of yin and yang, emphasizing the balance between opposing forces.
There are various styles of tai chi, such as Yang, Chen, and Sun, named after prominent teachers or founders. Although there are differences among these styles, they share many commonalities, and there is no scientific evidence suggesting one style is superior to the others. For beginners, Yang style is often recommended due to its popularity and availability of classes.
Finding a tai chi instructor or school can be done through online searches, as there is no standardized certification for instructors. Those interested in delving deeper into the philosophy of tai chi should seek out instructors who have studied it extensively rather than focusing solely on fitness-oriented classes. It is advisable to visit multiple classes to find a comfortable space, teaching style, and classmates that suit individual preferences. Tai chi is an experiential practice that requires experiencing and feeling it firsthand.
While some schools may have higher prices for classes, others offer lower fees or sliding-scale options. Free tai chi classes can also be found through park districts or community organizations. Learning tai chi online is another option, with some instructors who are also healthcare providers offering virtual courses tailored to individuals with specific health conditions such as arthritis.
Beginner tai chi classes typically start with foundational exercises, gradually introducing concepts and principles before moving into simple choreography. This approach ensures that beginners do not feel overwhelmed by complex steps. Visualizing the movements can be helpful, as the names of tai chi movements often reference Chinese literature. For instance, when performing “The White Crane Spreads Its Wings,” one can imagine a crane spreading its wings. Although tai chi has its roots in martial arts, fighting is typically not a part of regular practice. While advanced students may engage in partner sparring, most classes focus on individual movements.