We’re often inundated with new tips, tricks, and tools to combat the stressors of everyday life. While it’s great to test innovations and find what works, we can also learn from the people and practices that came before us. Tai chi, an ancient Chinese mind and body martial art, is a gentle form of exercise that goes beyond stress management. It has been shown to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression while improving balance, strength, cognitive performance, and overall quality of life. That’s not too shabby for an exercise practice that requires nothing more than your body.
Interested in learning more about this ancient art? Keep reading to discover the origins of tai chi plus helpful tips for beginners.
Tai chi, which some people call meditation in motion, blends slow and soft movements with faster-paced explosive movements. While other forms of exercise build in breaks between sets or rounds, tai chi keeps the body in continuous motion.
Though the practice of tai chi originated in China roughly 350 years ago, the term appeared in the Chinese “Book of Changes” three centuries earlier. The ancient Chinese philosophy text says, “In all changes exists Tai Chi, which causes the two opposites in everything.”
To understand tai chi, it helps to understand the concepts of qi (also spelled chi) and yin and yang, which are baked into the fabric of the movement practice. Qi describes the energy force that flows through our bodies according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Yin and yang represent opposing but complementary elements, such as light and dark and summer and winter. Tai chi improves the flow of qi while promoting the balance of yin and yang, according to TCM.
Tai chi, sometimes called shadow boxing, can be practiced while sitting, standing, or walking. Tai chi movements often mimic certain animal actions, as in the case of “white crane flashes its wings” and “snake creeps through the grass.” Other movements are more straightforward, such as “right heel kick” and “cross hands.”
Tai chi is divided into five main styles, also called “family styles”: Chen, Yang, Wu, Sun, and Hao. While the styles share certain movements, each has distinctive characteristics. No matter the style or combination of styles, a tai chi session moves through forms, which are sets of movements. Some forms include just a handful of movements while others can surpass a hundred.
Tai chi, at its core, is founded on the fluidity of slow, graceful movements that flow from one to the next. Because this type of movement is low impact, meaning it puts minimal stress on muscles and joints, tai chi is generally safe for a wide range of fitness levels and ages. Additionally, it requires no equipment — aside from your body — and can be done just about anywhere. But the benefits don’t stop there. Research suggests regularly practicing tai chi may help people:
- Reduce depression and improve overall quality of life
- Reduce anxiety
- Improve sleep quality
- Improve cognitive performance, especially when it comes to memory
- Improve balance and reduce the risk of falling
- Reduce bodyweight, specifically around the midsection
- Reduce lower back pain
- Improve spine flexibility, specifically in the lower back
While you can find plenty of books and video tutorials devoted to tai chi techniques, it can be helpful to spend some time with a certified tai chi instructor first. A teacher can help you learn how to properly flow from move to move and incorporate breathing techniques as you do so. Plus, you can ask questions about techniques, positions, and modifications to keep you safe and comfortable. Once you feel confident enough, you may choose to practice tai chi on your own or stick with a group class.
When you first start, keep these tips in mind.
- Opt for loose-fitting clothing that won’t restrict your range of motion.
- Wear light, flexible shoes or practice barefoot.
- Bring a water bottle.
- Start practicing for around 20 to 30 minutes and build up to longer periods.
- Work toward a consistent practice with sessions at least two to three times per week.
- Consider recording yourself practicing tai chi so you can see how you flow through each movement.
When we think of good posture, we may forcefully sit up a little taller and even over-correct by puffing out our chests. In tai chi, the idea of good posture has more to do with aligning different areas of the body — namely the spine, pelvic area, and feet — as you move from one position to the next.
When you flow through each movement, be mindful of your breath. Notice if you force or hold your breath at any time, and instead work your way toward more free-flowing breath. Move through each session slowly and smoothly, and don’t continue any movement that causes pain.
Once you have the starting posture down, try one of these foundational movements.
- Horse Stance
Stand with your feet wider than shoulder-width distance apart. Check that the outside edges of your feet are parallel with one another. Sink down (as if you’re sitting in an imaginary chair) until the tops of your thighs reach a 45-degree angle. Make sure your head stacks above your shoulders and your shoulders stack above your hips.
- Golden Rooster Stands on One Leg
Shift your weight onto one leg as you slowly bring your other leg, bent at a 90-degree angle, up off the ground. The arm on the standing leg side remains down at your side, palm parallel to the floor, as your opposite arm bends at a 90-degree angle above the bent, raised leg.
- Snake Creeps Down
Begin in golden rooster stands on right leg. Gradually extend your left foot in front of you and then diagonally back behind you until your left heel meets the ground. As you shift your body weight through this move, your right arm can extend in front of your right leg (roughly parallel to the ground) as your left arm extends in line with your left leg.
- Crane Takes Flight
Begin in horse stance. Slowly rise to standing as you lift your relaxed hands to shoulder height, your arms extended out to each side.
Tai chi is a safe mind and body exercise option for most people. If you have any health concerns, check with your doctor before you try any new form of exercise. And don’t be afraid to modify or avoid certain postures. Most of all, pay attention, breathe, and relax as you learn an ancient practice that has the power to improve your health.