A beginner’s guide to Tai Chi

If you’re looking to try out a new form of exercise – or you want to find a form of fitness that’s gentle on your body and also benefits your mind – then you might want to think about trying Tai Chi. 

Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese tradition, and while it’s based in martial arts, it’s also a low impact form of exercise that’s suitable for all ages and abilities. Plus, Tai Chi can have powerful benefits for your health, strength, and mind. So, if you’d like to learn more about Tai Chi, then here’s everything you need to know to get started…

1. What is Tai Chi?

Tai Chi, also called Tai Chi Chuan, is one of the oldest forms of exercise and martial arts around. When it first began in China in the 13th century, Tai Chi was used as more of a martial art, but these days it’s practiced all around the world as a low-impact, health-promoting exercise. Tai Chi focuses on integrating the mind and the body, and because it combines deep breathing and relaxation with slow movements, it’s considered a form of meditation in motion.

Though it’s still a form of martial art, Tai Chi is entirely unique. Most other forms of martial art are either aggressive or defensive, but Tai Chi is all about allowing your life energy – or ‘qi’ – to flow through your body gently and powerfully, and finding peace and serenity as you do so. Have a watch of the video below to see Tai Chi master Daniel Lee explain what Tai Chi really is.

2. What are the principles and techniques of Tai Chi?

While there are several different styles of Tai Chi, they are all characterised by slow, elegant and continuous movements. When it’s correctly practised, the movements or poses should flow smoothly into each other – and because of this, the focus of Tai Chi isn’t so much on the movements themselves, but the way these fluid motions combine.

One of the main principles of Tai Chi is body and mind integration – and once these are successfully aligned, you should gain more control of your body and your movements. To achieve a sense of peace while practising Tai Chi, breathing deeply and calmly plays an important role too – and this can contribute towards a sense of mindfulness. Tai Chi is also a spiritual practice that focuses on developing positive strength and energy that you can use throughout life.

Many Tai Chi movements are practised in a squat-like position, with bent knees, and although there are technically 108 different Tai Chi moves, they’re not practised individually, but as combined motions. To see some of the most common Tai Chi movements, have a watch of the video below.

3. What are the health benefits of Tai Chi?

The health benefits of Tai Chi are very diverse, encompassing everything from improved physical strength and balance to powerful emotional and spiritual benefits – and according to the NHS, studies show that Tai Chi can be especially beneficial for people aged 65 and over. So, let’s take a closer look at some of the more specific health benefits of Tai Chi.

Tai Chi can reduce stress

While all forms of exercise can help alleviate stress and anxiety, Tai Chi can be especially good for this. Because it incorporates meditation and focused deep breathing, Tai Chi can provide some of the same stress management benefits of yoga or mindfulness. Plus, other studies show that Tai Chi can reduce stress just as effectively as more vigorous exercise, like running, swimming or boxing.

Tai Chi can improve mood

As well as alleviating anxiety and stress, Tai Chi can also help boost your mood if you’re feeling low. Scientific research suggests that because Tai Chi involves taking deep, mindful breaths, it has a positive effect on the nervous system and the hormones that help regulate mood, and can therefore reduce the symptoms of depression and fatigue.

Tai Chi can improve sleep

If you struggle getting a restful night’s sleep, practising Tai Chi might be able to help. One study followed young adults after they started doing Tai Chi classes twice a week for 10 weeks – and the results found that those who practiced Tai Chi saw significant improvements in the quality of their sleep. Tai Chi can be just as beneficial for the sleeping patterns of older adults, too: another study showed that older adults experiencing some form of cognitive impairment experienced better sleep after completing two months of twice-weekly Tai Chi classes.

Tai Chi can reduce arthritis pain

Tai Chi has also been shown to reduce pain from both rheumatoid arthritis and knee osteoarthritis. In one 2010 study, participants with rheumatoid arthritis practiced Tai Chi for 12 weeks, and found that by the end of the study, they experienced less pain, and their mobility and balance improved too. Another study found that when participants with knee osteoarthritis did an hour of Tai Chi twice a week, they experienced a reduction in pain and an improvement in wellbeing and quality of life.

Tai Chi may improve cognition in older adults

Some studies suggest that practising Tai Chi might improve cognitive function in older adults who are experiencing mild cognitive impairment. A 2018 study suggested that Tai Chi can help enhance memory and executive functioning skills, like carrying out complex tasks or focusing for long periods of time – all of which is good news for people looking to maintain their brain health and memory.

Tai Chi can reduce the risk of falling in older adults

Because it focuses on leg strength, reflexes, flexibility, and stability, Tai Chi is one of the most effective ways to improve strength and balance – and according to research, it can reduce the risk of falling in older adults by an enormous 45%. Plus, it can also significantly reduce the fear of falling, which can improve the quality of life for older adults – as well as boost confidence and contribute towards a stronger sense of independence.

To find out more about this, you may want to read our article, The importance of building strength and balance in your 50s and 60s – and to learn more about some of the benefits of Tai Chi , you might want to watch the video below.

4. Who can do Tai Chi?

One of the best things about Tai Chi is how accessible it is – because absolutely anyone can get involved with this ancient martial art, no matter their age, fitness level, or mobility. You don’t need to be physically fit or flexible to practice Tai Chi, so it’s perfect for people who are looking to slowly and gradually raise their activity levels.

Because you can do Tai Chi standing up, sitting down, or holding onto something, people who use wheelchairs or who need some extra support when standing, are still able to get the same holistic whole-body effect – and many of the movements can easily be adapted to people with other disabilities, too. This means that everyone is going to get something different from Tai Chi – and that’s one of the most exciting aspects about it.

Even though Tai Chi is a very gentle, low-impact form of exercise that’s unlikely to cause any injury, it can still be a good ideas to speak to a health practitioner before trying it out – particularly if you have a pre-existing health condition. If you have a hernia or suffer from back pain or severe osteoporosis, you may need to take extra precautions.

To see an example of how Tai Chi can be adapted for different health conditions, you might want to watch this video, which shows people with Parkinson’s practising seated Tai Chi exercises.

5. How can I learn Tai Chi?

As with any new form of exercise, it’s generally best to attend in-person classes with a qualified instructor. This way you can make sure your style and movements are correct and you’re not harming your body in any way or causing injury.

You can find Tai Chi classes at many gyms and fitness centres. To find classes near you, you can check out the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain website, or just search online for Tai Chi classes in your local area.

Alternatively, if you’re not able to attend in-person Tai Chi classes – or you’d just like to give it a go from the comfort of your own home at first – you can try out some online Tai Chi classes. If you’re happy to pay for courses, you might want to think about participating in Udemy’s Introductory Tai Chi Course, which shows you how to perform 16 of the main Tai Chi movements, as well as those movements that are particularly good at providing pain relief and improving balance. Otherwise, you may want to check out Mei Quan Academy of Tai Chi, which offers online Tai Chi courses with personalised instruction.

However, if you don’t want to pay for classes – or you just want to give Tai Chi a go and see if it’s for you – there are plenty of free tutorial videos on YouTube: just have a browse and see which videos appeal to you. Alternatively, you might want to check out the channel of UK Tai Chi trainer Freshfield Fitness, who has a range of free Tai Chi tutorials aimed at beginners. The video below is specifically aimed at improving strength and balance, so you might want to give it a try and see how you get on.

Final thoughts…

Practicing Tai Chi can provide you with significant benefits for both your physical and mental health. Not only can it improve strength and balance, which becomes increasingly important as we get older, but there’s also evidence that Tai Chi can also reduce stress, boost mood, improve sleep, enhance cognition, reduce pain, and generally contribute towards a greater sense of wellbeing. 

Tai Chi is a safe and gentle form of exercise that’s suitable for everyone, and can be easily adapted to different health conditions and disabilities.

Have you tried Tai Chi before – or are you thinking about giving it a go? We’d love to hear about your Tai Chi experiences! Leave us a comment below or join the conversation over on the Rest Less community.

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