What is Tai Chi?

tai chi
A group of people practices tai chi. (Image credit: TonyV3112 / Shutterstock.com)

Tai chi, sometimes written as t'ai chi, is a self-defense and calisthenics technique developed in China centuries ago as a maturation of several similar but separate exercises. The more formal name of this technique is tai chi chuan, which translates loosely to "supreme ultimate boxing."

While often referred to as a form of gentle exercise, tai chi is not just a physical activity, according to Peter Wayne, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the research director at Harvard's Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. 

"[Tai chi] is a mind-body exercise that integrates slow, gentle movements, breathing and a variety of cognitive components, including focused attention, imagery and multi-tasking," Wayne told Live Science.

While its precise origins are unknown, tai chi likely evolved from ancient forms of Asian martial arts, healing arts, philosophy and spiritual practices, Wayne writes in his book, "The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi" (Shambhala, 2013). Tai chi remains popular in China, where it is practiced daily en masse, often in the early morning in parks and open spaces. And over the past 50 years or so, tai chi has become popular outside of China, as well. It is practiced in hospitals, community centers, colleges, sports clubs and elsewhere throughout many countries, including the United States. 

Doctors and researchers both in China and in the Western world have documented many health benefits from tai 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. 

How tai chi works

A safe form of exercise for people of all ages, tai chi is often compared to yoga. And like yoga, tai chi has myriad forms. The most commonly practiced form is known as Yang style tai chi, but other popular forms include the Chen, Wu, Hao and Sun styles, according to the International Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan Association

Each style is slightly different, but all emphasize slow, deliberate and carefully orchestrated movements, with one movement flowing into the next — almost like a choreographed dance. In tai chi, this choreographed routine is known as a form or set, and each set contains a specific number of movements, or postures. For example, in Yang-style tai chi, there may be as many as 150 movements in a given set or as few as eight, according to Wayne. Practitioners of tai chi sometimes perform a set with weapons in their hands — such as swords or staffs — or they may perform a set with nothing in their hands. 

At a very basic level, tai chi can start as one of several movements that incorporate a slight crouch, slight twist, moving the arms forward and up and over the head or moving the legs from side to side. Although simple, the deliberate movements appear to build muscle strength and concentration if performed correctly.

A typical tai chi set includes movements designed as warm-up exercises, which provide moderate aerobic activity, help prepare the musculoskeletal system for further exercise and encourage deep breathing and relaxation, according to Wayne. These warm-up movements are followed by postures that exercise different parts of the body, from the chest and torso to the hips, legs and feet. The names of these postures are meant to inform students how to move their bodies. Hence names such as "raising the power," "withdraw and push," wave hands like clouds" and "grasp the sparrow's tail." 

"The goal of tai chi practice is to strengthen and integrate the mind and body for health and awareness and, for some people, self defense," Wayne said.

A typical tai chi set may also include cool-down exercises, which are meant to ensure that the energy activated during the set is equally distributed throughout the body, according to Wayne. Throughout the practice of tai chi there are many such understated spiritual components that incorporate the Chinese concepts of balance, or yin-yang, and qi, or energy flow.

Health benefits of tai chi

The slow and low-impact nature of tai chi make it an ideal form of exercise for the elderly, ill or disabled. However, tai chi is also commonly practiced by people of all ages who are in good health, according to Wayne, who said that studies show that the benefits of tai chi apply to people across a range of demographics, from healthy college students to patients suffering from heart disease. 

Most Western scientific studies have focused on the exercise element of tai chi chuan, rather than the practices' spiritual aspects. And the health benefits are numerous — so great that many hospitals hold tai chi classes for their patients. A 2012 study published in the journal Disability and Health found that tai chi was more effective than traditional physiotherapy at preventing falls among elderly hospital patients who had already sustained injuries as a result of a fall. 

The benefits of tai chi for both healthy individuals and those with health conditions include strengthening of cognitive function and memory, improvement of balance and muscular strength, improvement of quality of life and sleep and strengthening of immune health, according to Wayne. 

Independent studies published in April 2013 in PLoS ONE found that tai chi improved arthritic symptoms and physical function in patients with osteoarthritis and that tai chi improved the breathing and endurance of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease as well as conventional medication. [Related: What is Acupuncture?]

Tai 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 tai 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 tai 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 tai chi are small, the outcomes have been overwhelmingly positive and the side effects nil. Regardless of its association with Eastern philosophy, tai chi need not be considered magical, mystical or even "alternative." At its heart, tai chi is a very safe and effective form of meditation and exercise.

Follow Elizabeth Palermo @techEpalermo. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+.

Additional resources:

  • The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NIH) offers a broad overview of the practice of tai chi and the state of tai chi research. 
  • Harvard University also lists studies testing the benefits of tai chi for health and well being. 
  • The Taoist Tai Chi Society of the USA has many locations throughout the United States that offer lessons for beginners and more advanced students. 
Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth is a former Live Science associate editor and current director of audience development at the Chamber of Commerce. She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from George Washington University. Elizabeth has traveled throughout the Americas, studying political systems and indigenous cultures and teaching English to students of all ages.