Tai Chi is growing in popularity as a wellness routine that's sometimes referred to as moving meditation. It consists of a series of slow movements, gentle physical positions, controlled breathing and a meditative mindset.
Tai Chi originated as a martial art form in China, but it has evolved since as a wellness practice. Now, it can be used to help you improve your health and wellbeing and may even be incorporated into rehabilitation programs.
Tai Chi also offers a number of health benefits, including increased balance, better cognitive abilities, and an improved mood. If you are interested in learning more about Tai Chi and how you might benefit from practicing it, keep reading.
There are five primary styles or forms of Tai Chi, which include Chen, Yang, Wu, Hao, and Sun. Although each style is named after the family that developed the form, they are each based on the same principles. The primary differences occur in positioning, speed, and force of movement.
- Chen: As the oldest form of Tai Chi, Chen is characterized by alternating fast and explosive movements with slow and gentle movements. It also engages the cardiovascular system and offers the most physical workout.
- Yang: The Yang style of Tai Chi is the most popular form practiced today and features gentle, large-frame movements. This form is ideal for people who have injuries or prefer a lower impact form of exercise.
- Wu: With the Wu form, emphasis is on redirecting incoming force with a slightly forward leaning posture. This style is often characterized by softness and is ideal for those who want to strengthen the lower back and core.
- Hau: This lesser-known style places emphasis on internal force. Hau is an advanced form of Tai Chi and is not recommended for beginners.
- Sun: As the newest form of Tai Chi, the Sun style consists of lively steps and a slightly higher stance and mimics a dance. It also is used in many programs for people with arthritis.
Studies of the centuries-old practice of Tai Chi, indicate that it may offer a number of potential health benefits. Not only does it keep you active and moving, but it also may be useful in improving balance, mood, and quality of life. Here is a closer look at some of the potential health benefits of Tai Chi.
Improves Balance and Stability
Research suggests that practicing Tai Chi may reduce your risk of falls because its movements promote balance and stability. It may even improve balance in people with mild to moderate Parkinson's disease.
For instance, a review of three studies found that people with Parkinson's disease who did 60-minute Tai Chi sessions two to three times per week for at least 12 weeks experienced fewer falls when compared with interventions like resistance training and stretching.
Another review found that Tai Chi also can potentially reduce falls among older adults by as much as 20%. But the researchers indicate that other forms of exercise are important too—especially those that incorporate functional movements like rising from a chair, stepping up, or rotating while standing. These types of exercises also improve balance and stability and reduce falls by nearly 25%.
Helps Manage Pain
There is some evidence that Tai Chi may help people with fibromyalgia sleep better and cope with pain, fatigue, and depression that comes with the condition. In fact, a review of six studies found that people with fibromyalgia who did one to three 60-minute sessions of Tai Chi for 12 weeks reported improved sleep quality, less fatigue, and increased quality of life.
Tai Chi also may be helpful in managing chronic pain or pain from osteoarthritis. In fact, both the American College of Rheumatology and the Arthritis Foundation strongly recommend Tai Chi for the management of knee osteoarthritis.
There also are several studies that have found that Tai Chi can help alleviate knee pain. One review found that treating knee osteoarthritis with 30 to 60 minutes of Tai Chi two to four times a week helped reduce pain and stiffness as well as improve physical function. The participants also had improved balance and mental health.
Meanwhile, another review found that people with knee osteoarthritis who consistently practiced Tai Chi showed improvements in their walking abilities and posture control. However, the researchers note that more high-quality studies are needed to confirm these findings.
Improves Quality of Life
Practicing Tai Chi also may help improve quality of life in people with heart failure and cancer. For instance, researchers found that Tai Chi was helpful in managing symptoms of anxiety and depression in people with cardiovascular disease or other heart risk factors. It also had a positive impact on their quality of life.
And another study found that older adults can boost their psychological well-being—such as reducing stress and increasing self-esteem—by consistently practicing Tai Chi. It can even be useful for people with breast cancer. In fact, one study found that Tai Chi is significantly better than conventional interventions at improving quality of life.
Boosts Cognitive Abilities
Aside from the fact that Tai Chi can relieve stress and improve your mental wellbeing, it also may have an impact on cognitive abilities. A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science reports that while exercise in general can improve cognitive function, Tai Chi may be the best choice because it is easily accessible for older people. Plus, the mental exercises and repeated movements may impact memory function.
Meanwhile, another review examined the use of Tai Chi during the early stages of dementia in people around 78 years old. What they discovered, is that doing the exercises three times a week for 30 to 60 minutes has a positive impact on some cognitive functions such as semantic memory (word recall), verbal learning/memory, and self-perception of memory.
Provides Symptom Relief of Chronic Illnesses
There also is some evidence that Tai Chi may beneficial in managing symptoms of chronic illnesses like type 2 diabetes. For instance, one review of 23 studies found that Tai Chi helped lower fasting blood glucose, body mass index, and total cholesterol in people with the condition.
It even played a role in improving their quality of life by reducing pain and improving physical function. That said, researchers note that more studies are needed due to the small size of the studies in the review.
While Tai Chi can be done at home with the help of an online video, it can be helpful to learn the forms in a classroom designed for beginners first—especially because there are so many different steps and movements to learn.
Many times, you can find a class at your local hospital, community center, or YMCA, but there also are some Tai Chi studios as well. Here are some things to keep in mind when beginning Tai Chi.
- Mirror the instructor: When you are first starting out, it is best to try to mirror the instructor and recognize that you may not perform all the moves exactly as they should be. This is OK. Doing Tai Chi takes time and patience.
- Be mindful of your posture: While many Tai Chi movements are fluid and dance-like, it is important that you also keep your posture upright. Slouching will work against the goal of developing a strong core.
- Pay attention to your balance: To keep from falling when you are performing Tai Chi, it is important to keep your center of gravity low. This can be accomplished by bending your knees slightly. If you are particularly unstable, it may be helpful to look for a chair version of Tai Chi.
- Keep your body relaxed: Tai Chi requires fluid movements and mindfulness. You can accomplish those two tasks by releasing any tension and imagining what is happening in your body. Try to focus on what you are doing and avoid getting tense or stiff.
- Have fun: Tai Chi should bring you peace and contentment, but it also should be enjoyable and not feel like a chore. If you struggle to get through a class, it may not be the right exercise for you.
Check in with yourself and assess how you are feeling about Tai Chi. The goal is that you finish your exercise feeling refreshed and at peace.
While both Tai Chi and yoga involve fluid movements and a meditative mindset, there are some differences in how the two are implemented. For instance, yoga involves holding different poses while Tai Chi is a dance-like form of martial arts. Beyond that, there are not many differences in terms of purpose and benefits.
Both yoga and Tai Chi can help tone your muscles and build strength as well as be as low impact or rigorous as you want. They also have very similar benefits including boosting mood, improving posture, and managing symptoms of chronic illnesses. And, like Tai Chi, yoga offers many different styles ranging from gentle moves to physically demanding ones.
Because there is no evidence indicating which one might be better for your health needs, it may come down to a matter of personal preference or physical limitations. Or, you may choose to incorporate both into your wellness routine.
Talk to a healthcare provider about both options to determine which one is right for you. They can evaluate your fitness level and your medical conditions and help you make a decision.