Tai chi is an ancient Chinese form of self-defense, but it has become a popular form of exercise because of its many mental and physical health benefits. Tai chi exercises are composed of slow, graceful movements that help ease anxiety, boost mood, improve concentration, and help with balance, flexibility, and stamina.
“A regular meditative tai chi practice, in addition to moderate aerobic activity that we enjoy, such as 20 to 30 minutes daily of brisk walking, swimming or mowing the lawn, will help maintain emotional stability and cognitive function,” says Regina Gibbons, a specialist in tai chi, qi gong, and acupuncture with the Katherine A. Gallagher Integrative Therapies Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.
How Tai Chi Is Different
Unlike aerobic exercise or sports, such as tennis, tai chi seeks to slow you down. The goal is not to work up a sweat or give your muscles a “no pain, no gain” workout. Tai chi exercises are actually a series of motions, done slowly and deliberately, but without pausing. And because there is a specific order to each motion and position, tai chi challenges your memory and concentration. Deep, but natural, breathing is a key part of tai chi. Your muscles should stay relaxed, not tense, and your joints are never fully extended.
“My teacher will often quip, ‘Here, we start slow. Then we get really slow, but we don’t want to rush into that.’ So even though it may not appear or even feel like tai chi is a ‘workout,’ the slow repetitive moments build strength and endurance over time,” Gibbons says. “The meditative quality of the tai chi movements allows us to be more aware of ourselves in time and space. We have learned that people are more likely to stay engaged with an exercise program that is not overtaxing, something that is simple, that can easily be done at home or as part of a social group. Tai chi is a good option. A Tai chi practice is a lifestyle choice that contributes to our health and well-being, and can be maintained well into our 90s and beyond.”
Less Stress, Better Memory
As much as tai chi exercises benefit the body, it is their effect on our emotional and cognitive health that may be of even greater value.
“In tai chi, as in all East Asian medicine, ‘mind’ encompasses all the physiological information systems in the body: respiration, digestion, proprioception (the perception of the movements and position of the body), neurohormonal signaling and the interrelationships (crosstalk) among the systems,” Gibbons says. “By this definition ‘mind,’ mood and even memory are inseparable from the body.”
The term “mindbody” is often used when discussing how tai chi calms the mind while strengthing the body. Gibbons says she prefers the term “bodymind,” as the benefits start from the body movements of this ancient practice.
“The more we move, the better we’ll feel,” she says. “The better we feel, the more we’ll move. The more we move, the more our body will want to move and our bodymind’s positive feedback loop will propel us toward health and longevity.”
She also notes that stress hormones can make it difficult to retrieve long-term memories, and that the benefits of conventional exercise to help relieve emotional stress are well documented. “Tai chi’s meditative approach helps mitigate the stress response and may be part of the reason we see a positive effect on cognitive function (memory, attention, language, decision making, and visual and spatial skills),” Gibbons says. “Learning new skills, particularly new motor skills, has been shown to lead to cognitive changes in healthy adults.”
Finding tai chi classes is getting easier across the nation. Many community health centers, senior centers, community centers, YMCAs, and active adult/retirement communities are now offering tai chi.
“For those with medical or balance challenges it is recommended that you consult your doctor first,” Gibbons says. “Then inquire about the teacher’s specific training and experiences relative to your specific needs and goals. Most classes will allow you to observe or participate in a sample class to see if it’s a good match for you. Trust your body and your lifetime of wisdom living in it. If something does not feel right physically or emotionally, keep looking until you find a good fit. Videos can be a helpful tool but should not be used in lieu of in-person instruction from a qualified teacher.”