Little is known about the origins of tai chi. According to a popular Chinese legend, it was first devised by a Taoist monk called Chang San-Feng – hence its alternative name ‘tai chi chang’. It’s thought the movements are based on those of animals, in which you move your body slowly, gently and gracefully through a series of postures. The emphasis is on meditation. This means you try to put aside distracting thoughts, concentrate and breathe in a deep and relaxed way. Once you have learnt a routine, you should be able to move seamlessly from one posture to another.
The most popular form of tai chi is the Yang style, which has 108 postures. There are four other forms known as Chen, Hao, Wu and Sun. As the postures have no set routine or time limit, you can practise tai chi at your leisure, for as long or as little as you like, and in a place that suits you.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, an energy known as ‘qi’ (pronounced chi) runs through our bodies. If you’re stressed or unwell, it’s thought the flow of qi will be disturbed. In tai chi, the concepts of yin and yang (opposing forces) are used to help restore the flow of qi and maintain a healthy balance in your body. Although these concepts aren’t recognised in modern medicine, researchers have acknowledged the physical and psychological benefits of tai chi. For example, regular sessions may be able to prevent falls and improve your mental wellbeing. Tai chi can't however help to reduce the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis or cancer.
The long-term benefits of tai chi are still unknown and more research is needed to fully understand exactly how it affects the way your body works. However, it’s a safe, feel-good form of exercise that has been shown over the centuries to boost mental wellbeing, keeping you healthy and happy.
Because tai chi is low impact (which means it won’t put much pressure on your bones and joints) most people should be able to do it. This is good news, especially if you’re not as young as you used to be and would like to become more active. For example, a tai chi training programme may help you develop your muscle strength, flexibility, balance and reaction time. This will keep you steadier on your feet and therefore decrease your risk of falling. If you’re less likely to fall, then there is a lower chance of you breaking a bone and having to cope with all the problems this brings.
As with any form of exercise, it’s important to speak to your GP before you start training in tai chi, especially if you have an existing health condition. If you’re pregnant, have a hernia, back pain or severe osteoporosis, your specialist or tai chi instructor may advise you to modify or avoid certain postures. Don’t let this put you off though; you can still participate, just be cautious of trying out some of the more advanced postures. If you build up your strength and balance gradually, you will become more confident and skilled over time.
So, if you want to do a low-impact, meditative form of exercise, why don’t you tai something new today?