What is Tai Chi?

T'ai chi, shortened from t'ai chi ch'uan and sometimes spelled as tai chi, is a self-defense and calisthenicstechnique developed in China centuries ago as a maturation of several similar but separate exercises. The precise origin is not known.

T'ai chi remains enormously popular in China, where it is practiced daily en masse, often in the early morning in parks and open spaces. Some call it mediation in motion. T'ai chi also is practiced around the world and is safe for people of all ages.

Doctors both in China and in the Western world have documented numerous health benefits from t'ai chi, including improvements in balance, flexibility, stamina, blood pressure, general heart health, mental health, and symptoms associated with stroke, fibromyalgia, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.

This stands in stark contrast to the similarly appearing practices of qigong and falun gong, the former of which is also related to healing and magic, and the latter of which is an adulteration of t'ai chi and qigong largely considered utterly useless.

T'ai chi has myriad forms, with similar-sounding names, particularly in Chinese culture. Below is a general description of the concept of t'ai chi as it is most commonly practiced.

How t'ai chi works

T'ai chi, at a physical level, is a series of slow, deliberate and carefully orchestrated movements, best learned from a seasoned instructor. The movements emphasize precise motion, breathing and awareness. Today, t'ai chi is most commonly performed for its health benefits. Its slow and low-impact nature makes this an ideal exercise for the elderly, ill or disabled.

Forms that are more closely associated with martial arts, however, may have faster and more powerful movements. In fact, many slow t'ai chi moves are the basis of martial arts moves. T'ai chi also is practiced for sport and even for its aesthetic qualities. T'ai chi has an understated spiritual component incorporating the Chinese concepts of yin-yang and chi, or energy flow (however, the meaning of "chi" in t'ai chi means "extreme").

In many Westerners' minds, t'ai chi is exclusively the gentle, exercise element of t'ai chi ch'uan. For this form, there are more than 100 movements. One popular style is the so-called Beijing form, which has 24 basic moves, with names transcribed into English such as Part the Wild Horse's Mane, White Crane Spreads Its Wings, Brush Knee and Step Forward, and Playing the Lute.

At a very basic level, t'ai chi can start as four movements that incorporate a slight crouch, slight twist, moving the arms forward and up and over the head, and moving the legs from side to side. Although simple, the deliberate movements appear to build muscle strength and concentration if performed correctly.

Health benefits of t'ai chi

Most Western scientific studies have focused on the exercise element of t'ai chi ch'uan. And the health benefits are numerous — so great that many hospitals hold t'ai chi classes for their patients.

Independent studies published in April 2013 in PLoS ONE found that t'ai chi improved arthritic symptoms and physical function in patients with osteoarthritis and that t'ai chi improved the breathing and endurance of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease as well as conventional medication. [Related: What is Acupuncture?]

T'ai chi training was effective in reducing balance impairments in patients with mild to moderate Parkinson's disease, as reported in March 2013 in the Journal of Physiotherapy, confirming many studies revealing the benefits for Parkinson's patients.

In 2010 in the New England Journal of Medicine, doctors reported that t'ai chi is a useful treatment for fibromyalgia, a nerve disorder characterized by widespread muscle pain and fatigue. Also in 2010, doctors reported in BioMed Central that the regular practice of t'ai chi improves psychological wellbeing including reduced stress, anxiety, depression and mood disturbance, and increased self-esteem.

While most of the more than 1,000 published studies on t'ai chi are small, the outcomes have been overwhelmingly positive and the side effects nil. Regardless of its association with Eastern philosophy, t'ai chi need not be considered magical, mystical or "alternative." At its heart, t'ai chi is a very safe and effective form of calisthenics.

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Christopher Wanjek

Christopher Wanjek

Christopher Wanjek is the Bad Medicine columnist for Live Science and a health and science writer based near Washington, D.C.  He is the author of two health books, "Food at Work" (2005) and "Bad Medicine" (2003), and a comical science novel, "Hey Einstein" (2012). For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he occasionally opines with a great deal of healthy skepticism. His "Food at Work" book and project, commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization, concerns workers health, safety and productivity. Christopher has presented this book in more than 20 countries and has inspired the passage of laws to support worker meal programs in numerous countries. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University. He has two Twitter handles, @wanjek (for science) and @lostlenowriter (for jokes).
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