More of a fitness regimen than a 'therapy', Tai Chi is gaining popularity in the United States as an aid to good health, especially for older adults. This slow, graceful Chinese exercise programme pays dividends in increased strength and muscle tone, enhanced range of motion and flexibility, and improved balance and coordination. In clinical trials, it has also shown an unquestionable ability to reduce blood pressure and heart rate.
Many who practice tai chi find that it also offers a variety of 'quality of life' benefits such as improved concentration, an increased sense of well being, decreased feelings of stress, more energy, improved posture, and better circulation. Derived from the martial arts, this low-intensity, low-impact form of exercise is especially well suited for those recovering from an injury; and because it is a weight-bearing exercise, it is also helpful for preventing the brittle-bone disease, osteoporosis.
Procedure of Treatment
Tai Chi exercises encompass a set of 'forms'. With names like 'Grasping the Bird's Tail' and 'Wave Hands Like Clouds', each form consists of a series of positions strung together into one continuous movement, including a set beginning and end. A single form may include up to 100 positions and may take as long as 20 minutes to complete. The forms can be performed anywhere at any time, but for maximum health benefits, tai chi experts recommend setting aside the same time every day. In China, tai chi is often performed in large groups as an early morning exercise. To learn the forms, you will need to attend classes with a tai chi instructor, typically someone who has mastered the Chinese martial arts. No special equipment is necessary, although comfortable loose-fitting clothing and flat shoes or socks are recommended. Some programmes encourage participants to wear loose-fitting uniforms similar to those used in other types of martial arts programmes. In each weekly session, you will be drilled in the positions that make up the various forms. You may find it hard to remember all the movements at first, but like ice skating and bike riding, they become easier with practice. The object is to achieve coordinated, fluid, whole-body movement, even though you may only move one part at a time. You will begin by assuming the basic tai chi position: standing with your feet parallel and should-width apart, your knees bent slightly, your head slightly lifted, and your spine straight. Your shoulders should be somewhat rounded and your arms should hang loosely at your sides as you prepare to move into a position. As you go through each sequence, your knees should remain slightly bent, with all movement originating from the waist. This area of the body located just below the navel is known as your 'tantien'. In Chinese philosophy, it is considered the centre of the body's 'chi' or vital energy. By focusing on this centre as you practice the deep breathing and slow movements of tai chi, you can expect to experience a heightened awareness of your entire body. In Bill Moyers' book Healing and the Mind, Grandmaster Ma Yueh Liang describes five principles of successful practice: First: Calm down. Think of tai chi only. Second: Eliminate any exertion. Third: Be consistent in movement and speed. Fourth: Practice truly and precisely. Study the movements you make. Fifth: Persevere. Practice for the same amount of time at the same hour each day. Because you will be practicing the same movements over and over again, tai chi may seem boring at first. However, for experienced tai chi practitioners, the forms become challenging. Some masters observe that while some people are quick to learn the basic movements of a form, their completed mastery can take a lifetime to achieve. To get the most from tai chi, say the experts, you must endeavour to be introspective, recognizing, the stress and tension in your body, and working to release it. Most people who practice tai chi say they feel they have had a 'work out' after an hour-long session, even though they may have never raised a sweat. However, you are unlikely to feel the same type of fatigue you might expect from such exercises as jogging. Instead, you will probably feel a sense of sustained energy and tension relief. Some practitioners claim that the flowing nature of tai chi so enhances the circulation that they feel warm and invigorated for the rest of the day.
Treatment Time: Classes take 60 minutes. An average tai chi form can be performed in seven to ten minutes once it is mastered.
Treatment Frequency: Tai chi may be performed every day or periodically throughout the week. Daily practice is recommended.
Like other forms of tradition Chinese medicine such as qigong, tai chi is founded on a belief in chi (also spelled qi), a vital force thought to flow through the body along certain channels, or 'meridians'. It also reflects an attempt to harmonize the two opposing forces of yin and yang, universal principles that incorporate such polar opposites as male and female, light and dark, active and passive. All tai chi movements, for example, are pairs of opposites such as left and right or thrust and yield. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine believe that tai chi improves health by breaking up blockages in the flow of chi, thus reestablishing balance in the body's supply of vital force. Western advocates of the discipline point out a number of less esoteric physical benefits. Especially for older adults, who face a decline in muscle strength, flexibility and range of motion, tai chi offers all of the following: Its slow, deep breathing increases relaxation and concentration. Some of the basic movements-putting full weight on the lower leg, alternating from one leg to another, stepping backward and forward and from side to side-help to strengthen muscle and bone, while improving balance and thus preventing falls. (Nearly 30 per cent of those over 65 sustain at least one fall. About half of these falls result in serious injuries, mostly fractures of the hip or wrist.) moving the head, eyes and body together helps to recalibrate the inner ear-the body's balance centre. Natural extension of the body during tai chi helps encourage correct posture. Tai chi's low-intensity movements have an aerobic affect on the heart and vascular system. Focused attention on movements encourages mental alertness, while relaxing body and mind. Researchers still are not sure exactly which of these effects is responsible for tai chi's documented ability to reduce heart rate and blood pressure, but studies indicate that it is clearly more effective than ordinary aerobic exercise. One study also found that, among older individuals, mastering tai chi can reduce the risk of falling by nearly 50 per cent.
Who Should Avoid This Therapy?
Tai chi is a safe and effective method of exercise and relaxation for most everyone, young or old, athletic or not. Although the exercises are generally performed while standing, there is a lot of emphasis on shifting weight from one leg to another, the movements can be adapted to permit participation even by those using wheel-chairs or walkers. The forms are flexible enough to allow each person to perform to his 'personal best'. An instructor may encourage a young athlete to flex deeply in the knees, for example, while suggesting that an elderly person perform a partial equivalent of the movement.
There are no known side-effects of Tai Chi.