For many, a balanced wellness routine involves a blend of physically challenging activities, including HIIT workouts, yoga flows, and cardio-heavy sweat sessions, and mental health-enhancers, such as meditation or micro-mindfulness exercises. While there’s nothing wrong with splitting free time between the two types of practices, there is one activity that allows you to accomplish both at the same time: Tai Chi.
Here, experts break down the history and health benefits of Tai Chi for beginners, as well as the pointers to keep in mind when you first start dipping your toe into the practice.
What Is Tai Chi?
Historically considered to be a type of martial art, Tai Chi is a Chinese practice that dates back more than 300 years and has largely been used as a self-defense program, according to a review published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science. Over the last 100 years or so, though, Tai Chi has come to be seen as an “internal martial art” meant to enhance a person’s health, says Jesse Tsao, PhD, an internationally known Tai Chi master and the founder of Tai Chi Healthways USA in San Diego, California. “Some people call it meditation in motion, and that means that it is both mind and body,” adds Marsha Bateman, MS, PT, a Tai Chi instructor with Tai Chi Health in Madison, Wisconsin.
Essentially, Tai Chi involves performing relaxed, fluid movements with a calm, yet focused mental state, says Bateman. “You’re doing this with what we call a relaxed alertness — your mind is quiet, your muscles are relaxed, you’re calm, but you’re also really alert,” she says. “It’s like you’re still like a mountain, but you move like a river.” When the movements are performed in a smooth sequence, known as form, the practice looks like an effortless, slow-motion dance, she says. There’s no equipment required, either: All you need is comfortable clothing and a space that’s big enough to turn around in, says Bateman. (BTW, even model Naomi Campbell is a fan of Tai Chi.)
The Benefits of Tai Chi for Beginners — and Everyone
If you describe yourself as seriously clumsy and are constantly tripping over your own feet, consider incorporating Tai Chi and its balance-boosting moves into your routine. A 2006 study found that folks who practised Tai Chi for more than a year had faster reaction times in their hamstrings and calf muscles and were able to spend more time on a balance board, suggesting they had better dynamic standing balance (re: the ability to stay upright while moving) than people who had never tried the martial art. What’s more, research shows Tai Chi is linked with improvements in physical agility, coordination skills, and static balance (re: the ability to stay upright while stationary, such as while standing on one leg), according to the Journal of Sport and Health Science article.
Thanks to those slow and steady movements, Tai Chi can be quite the muscle-builder, says Bateman. “If you stand with your knees slightly bent and slowly transition forward and back, from one foot to the other, and do that for an hour, you [can tell] it’s strengthening,” she says. Research backs up this observation, too: A 2014 study found that practising Tai Chi for 40 minutes six times a week improved lower-body strength in just four months, and a recent systematic review discovered that, when combined with resistance training, practising Tai Chi “significantly” improves upper- and lower-body muscle strength over time.
Boosts Mood and Well-Being
Along with those physical improvements, picking up Tai Chi for beginners could do your mental health some good. Research shows that people who began regularly practicing Tai Chi experienced significant improvements in their psychological well-being, enhanced mood, and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression. “I think the stresses in our lives right now, at all of our ages, just keep increasing, and anything that we can do to decrease anxiety and give us a more positive mental focus — like Tai Chi — can be helpful,” says Bateman.
Increases the Flow of Qi
Qi, pronounced “chee,” is a vital energy within your body, and it flows along “energy pathways,” called meridian channels, that extend to your fingers and toes, says Tsao. There are also two types of meridian channels: Red (the yang force) and blue (the yin force), which need to be balanced to keep your body healthy, he says. Similarly, when the flow of qi is blocked, you may experience physical or mental health problems, he adds. Practicing Tai Chi, however, can help restore this inner balance of yin and yang and promote the flow of qi, thanks to the gentle, repetitive movements, according to the University of Michigan Health.
How to Practice Tai Chi for Beginners
To get the most benefits out of your Tai Chi practice, Bateman recommends newbies look for an in-person class, such as at your local community center, yoga studio, or fitness club versus a virtual experience. An in-person instructor will be able to point out any slip-ups and correct your form before you get too far along into your practice, but an online class can still be a good entry point to understanding Tai Chi if there aren’t any IRL classes available, she says. Try Tai Chi Health’s online courses or follow along with one of Tsao’s YouTube videos, such as this 16-minute practice that breaks down the basics of Tai Chi for beginners.
Whether it’s taught in-person or over Zoom, a Tai Chi for beginners class will typically last 40 minutes to an hour, and you’ll practice the basic moves on their own before combining them together into a smooth sequence, says Bateman. That said, even just a 20-minute practice can be beneficial when you’re first starting out, she adds. Regardless of the class length, follow Tsao’s recipe for success every time you practice.
5 Key Tai Chi for Beginner Tips
1. Take it easy, but don’t forget about your posture
No one is expecting you to remember how to perform every move or properly flow from one to the next when you’re a newbie. That’s why Tsao recommends beginners first focus on mirroring the instructor, even if you can’t do both the upper and lower body movements simultaneously. “You don’t have to initially be that good in coordination,” he explains. “You can just copy my stepping and ignore how my arm or hand moves. [If] you cannot process so many moves at the same time, you just pick up the easy one.”
Your muscles should be loose and relaxed throughout the practice, but you shouldn’t let your posture fall to the wayside. Remember, Tai Chi looks a lot like slow dancing, and that requires a strong, upright posture. Professional ballroom dancers don’t perform slouched over, and neither do Tai Chi practitioners, says Tsao.
2. Keep your centre of gravity low
Balance is key when practicing Tai Chi, and to keep yourself from toppling over as you flow through moves, Tsao suggests keeping your centre of gravity as low as possible. To do just that, sink your butt down and bend your knees slightly, he says. “Think about the weight [being] on the leg or on the seat, not on the top,” he explains.
3. Focus on fluid, full-body movements
While maintaining a low centre of gravity is an essential component of Tai Chi for beginners, your waist shouldn’t be locked. Instead, it should be limber enough to move with your torso, and your arms and hands should move like a silk ribbon — both of which are necessary to achieve the flow, says Tsao. “We want you pliable and flexible,” he says.
4. Move with your qi in mind
Remember, Tai Chi is meant to promote the free flow of your inner qi, and that means you’ll need to move with intention. “We are not disco — we are not just dancing without any purpose,” says Tsao. Instead, keep your body relaxed, and imagine what’s happening to your body and your qi as you work through the movements, he says. For example, “as you extend your hand out, relax — let the stress, the emotion out,” he explains. “If I were hugging my hand in, I would imagine getting fresh air from the ocean [and] from the mountain.”
5. Be mindful.
As a mind-body practice, it’s important to stay mindful and present while you’re doing Tai Chi, says Tsao. “Tai Chi gives you a mental clarity because you have to be so focused when you do it,” explains Bateman. “You can’t be thinking of what you’re going to make for dinner. I mean, that mental focus has to be there to learn Tai Chi and to do it [well].”
While those mental and physical health benefits may convince you to make Tai Chi the centrepiece of your wellness regimen, Bateman says it doesn’t have to be the only practice you do. Instead, she encourages you to think of Tai Chi as simply another way to spice up your routine, practicing it once or twice a week. “Don’t quit your aerobics or don’t quit whatever else gives you joy and you like to do,” she says. “But this could be something that really adds a whole different dimension to your life.”
This story first appeared on www.shape.com
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