Michael Carrera, MSc
Muscle soreness and accelerated heart rate is often associated with Western methods of fitness training. However, over the past few decades, meditative Eastern exercise methods such as Tai Chi have crept in to complement mainstream fitness programs..
Muscle soreness and accelerated heart rate is often associated with Western methods of fitness training. However, over the past few decades, meditative Eastern exercise methods such as Tai Chi have crept in to complement mainstream fitness programs.
Historically practised as a martial art, Tai Chi focuses on cultivating the body’s flow of energy by performing a slow, gentle, and precise sequence of movements that channel potentially destructive energy away from the body.
Until recently, Tai Chi was considered the sole domain of older adults in parks; nowadays classes are offered at fitness clubs, community centres, and schools across North America, and it is gaining increasing popularity as a form of exercise that nourishes the mind, cleanses the soul, and soothes the body.
As a low-impact, low-velocity exercise, Tai Chi requires a greater degree of movement than yoga, yet eliminates the joint impact of many aerobic activities. No equipment is required, it can be performed anywhere, and it provides numerous health benefits.
Legend has it that Chang San Feng, a Taoist monk, scholar, and martial artist had a dream that initiated the development of Tai Chi in 13th century China. In his dream he observed the fight between a crane and a snake. The capabilities of the crane were no match for the graceful and gentle moves of the snake.
Initially developed as a system of self-defence for monks, many different styles of Tai Chi are practised nowadays, including Chen style, Sun style, Wu style, and Yang style. While the movements may differ between styles, the principles remain the same: slow, weight-bearing manoeuvres, simplicity, balance, flow, and concentration. Performing a sequence of moves–called forms–requires a high level of concentration as they come together to create a specific alignment in the body.
Translated from Chinese, Tai Chi means “supreme ultimate force” or “moving life force.”
Life force, or energy, in Tai Chi is believed to be in the form of the yin and the yang which represents two opposite halves coming together to create a unified whole. Yin is an emotional energy displaying qualities of softness and gentleness and is practiced by performing movements that are lower to the earth. Yang is a harder and a more creative energy that promotes larger circular movements that aim for the sky. Tai Chi finds its roots in Taoist philosophy, which adheres to the principle that optimum health is achieved through a balanced Chi or life force. Balance is maintained through the use of mindful breathing, precise execution of movements, and by keeping the muscles active but relaxed. To maintain a sense of harmony and balance, a yin movement bends and draws the body close to the earth and is gently opposed by a yang movement, which returns the body to an upward position.
Tai Chi is a moderate intensity exercise with an energy expenditure comparable to walking at a pace of 3.5 miles per hour. Health benefits for all ages include decreased stress, improved cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, balance, muscle strength, and arthritis relief. Tai Chi is especially beneficial for older adults as it has been linked to a reduction of falls in the elderly, an important feature given that one in three adults 65 years or older falls each year. In addition, recent research conducted by the Taipei Medical University Hospital, and published in the Journal of Alternative Complementary Medicine (October 2003), suggests that regular Tai Chi practice may be an effective way to reduce blood pressure and blood lipid levels.
A Tai Chi session can last five minutes to an hour depending on the experience and fitness level of the participant. All sessions begin with a few minutes of meditation to calm the mind and body, followed by a warm-up to increase blood flow and body temperature. The forms can be executed in a quick yet controlled pace to raise the heart rate and induce a greater aerobic intensity. Muscular effort can be increased by emphasizing knee bends, arms swings, and twisting of the trunk.
The addition of Tai Chi to any fitness-training program will only strengthen the mind/body connection. Since Tai Chi creates a state of calmness and relaxation, it is best practised on days off from your regular workouts.
While the movements may look simple, proper execution of forms takes months of practice. Combined with a proper fitness program, Tai Chi can provide the balance you have been searching for.