This ancient martial art of Tai Chi might look subtle but its wellbeing-boosting powers reach far beyond its gentle appearance
There are many sports out there which scream about the benefits they offer our bodies, but sometimes – as in life – it’s the quiet ones you need to watch out for.
The ancient martial art of Tai Chi, for instance, is not to be underestimated. Improved balance and strength, better blood pressure and increased immunity to viruses, are among some of the general health benefits enjoyed by regular practitioners of Tai Chi (who, as a side note, aren’t all in the over-60s category!). But that’s not all; there are also deeper processes at work, which could be what’s fuelling the increased uptake of this activity globally.
‘You learn the martial arts system, but when you get into teaching you realise that people aren’t [necessarily] as interested in the martial arts side of things,’ says Tai Chi instructor Michael Burke. ‘They want to learn about the health and healing side of Tai Chi.’
There’s clearly more to this slow-moving formation of movements than meets the eye. So what is Tai Chi, and what exactly is it that has kept generations of people coming back to this martial art day in, day out?
A brief history of Tai Chi (and Qigong)
Practised for thousands of years, the earliest forms of Tai Chi are believed to have been a series of movements developed to reflect the flux and flow between yin and yang states – as referenced in ancient Chinese divination text, the I Ching – within the body. Over time, these were transformed into a martial arts practice, with (at one point in history, at least) a more functional application. As such, Tai Chi is best described as an internal martial art that has developed an external physical form.
The internal element of Tai Chi is intertwined with another popular meditation-based practice: Qigong (pronounced chi gong) which, when broken down into two parts, means ‘life force’ and ‘to work’ or ‘gather’. In short, Qigong is about intentionally focusing on and building an internal energetic force and directing that to stimulate certain parts of our physiology. Sound complicated? It needn’t. At its core, mindful breathing and repetitive movements facilitate this work, which is usually directed at one situation or need – for instance, improving blood circulation.
Qigong is a complete, stand-alone practice that is utilised within Tai Chi’s flowing, full-body sequences, in order to enhance its overall effects.
A “moving medication”
‘In the west we’re living longer but aging faster,’ says Michael. ‘Practices like Tai Chi can help to restore balance.’ This might go some way to explaining why, in recent years, greater attention has been focused on natural and ancient modes of healing or improving our physical health.
Tai Chi has not escaped this exploration. ‘There’s been an explosion of interest,’ says Michael, who laughingly notes that ‘China’s healthcare system is basically get out in the park and do Tai Chi! Since I started teaching I’ve noticed that doctors have started to recommend it more often – there are more referrals.’
This aligns with what we know of research into the martial art. Over the past decade, numerous studies have looked more closely at Tai Chi in order to quantify the benefits that have been reported by those who practice it regularly. Harvard Medical School is among the big hitters who have been producing work in this area – even publishing a book offering a 12-week Tai Chi guide to a healthy body, heart and mind – as is the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, whose findings suggest that there is a strong link between Tai Chi and lower rates of insomnia, depression, illness and inflammation in individuals.
There are also studies and medical reports that suggest a regular programme of Tai Chi (for 6 months and longer) can be beneficial for individuals with Parkinson’s Disease, while some small randomized studies found that it can help those suffering from fibromyalgia, too.
That said, the activity has benefits for every body, regardless of age or physical fitness levels. ‘There are three main areas that Tai Chi works on,’ says Michael. ‘The mind, the body and the internal organs; it benefits the brain through meditation and learning; it helps improve your posture and can help people with injuries by strengthening joints, bones and muscles; deep controlled breathing is good for the respiratory system and the relaxing, slow movements, well, they say that can help the immune system.’
Really, looking at all of the benefits the one question left is: why are you not already doing it?
How (and where) to start practising Tai Chi
Over the years, the forms and zig-zagging movements that make up ‘Chinese shadow boxing’ – as it was once referred to by Westerners – have barely changed. In fact, most Tai Chi styles practiced globally today can be linked back to one of five distinct ‘families’: Chen, Yang, Wu (Hao), Wu and Sun.
‘I teach Yang style Tai Chi, which originated around 200 years ago from a master who was famed for his lovely flowing, round, relaxed movements,’ says Michael. But if you want to get started – and can’t go in-person for now – his recommendation is to ‘just join an online class.’
‘Keep an eye out for recommended instructors who can do the different types of Tai Chi, rather than just the difficult martial arts movements. Yang style is the most popular, along with Chen style. Try different instructors until you find one that works for you.’ And then, slow down, breathe deeply and begin to enjoy the myriad benefits of this ancient activity.
Michael Burke teaches regular Tai Chi classes on Zoom – find out more on his website
More about Michael Burke
Michael has studied Tai Chi since 1999 and Shaolin Kung Fu since 2009 and has developed a deep understanding of how these traditional Chinese exercises can improve health, happiness and longevity. He is also a keen Yoga and Pilates practitioner.
In addition to teaching Tai Chi, Michael is a freelance sports writer and health blogger, and has researched and studied the latest medical research and health news in depth, further enhancing his ability to unravel the current knowledge about what makes Tai Chi, Qi Gong, Yoga, Mindfulness and other holistic exercises that are so good for us.