Tai chi is a workout for the brain and body
By Cindy Kuzma
“Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane.” “Wave Hands Like Clouds.” “Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain.” These are not song titles or poems. Rather, they’re the deceptively complex movements of tai chi.
With around 250 million practitioners, tai chi is often cited as one of the world’s most popular physical activities. It originated in China in the 17th century as a martial art. Unlike karate or taekwondo, tai chi focuses on quiet strength rather than combat, which makes it more accessible to older adults or those who have been injured.
Shirley Chock, 48, began practicing in her 20s, after she tore her anterior cruciate ligament. She had trained in wushu kung fu, a more acrobatic martial art that caused the tear, but tai chi offered a low-impact way to rehab. Chock, a former financial professional who was born in New York and spent her childhood in Taiwan, also found tai chi beneficial in managing stress. After about two years, she began teaching it, and eventually took over Aiping Tai Chi, the Connecticut school where she had trained.
Since then, “the most common thing I have heard is older students saying, ‘If only I’d discovered this practice when I was younger,’” Chock said. Here’s what makes tai chi so useful, and how to get started with it when you’re ready.
Tai chi blends mental focus and physical effort to build strength, flexibility and mindfulness, said Peter Wayne, the director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and the author of “The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi.”
The poses are upright and less demanding than many in, for example, yoga. “Because tai chi evolved in terms of physical function and interaction, I think it translates better to everyday living activities, like lifting groceries, pushing doors open or catching things that fall,” Wayne said. Tai chi is also different from passive techniques like meditation because it pairs deep breathing with movement, which experts say helps you calm your nervous system.
Research suggests tai chi can also improve balance and mobility, including in people with neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease. It also helps prevent falls in older adults. By strengthening surrounding muscles, tai chi also reduces strain on joints, said Dr. Amanda Sammut, the chief of rheumatology at Harlem Hospital and an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Columbia University.
The name tai chi refers to both the practice and the underlying philosophy of yin and yang — that there’s no good without bad, no dark without light, Chock said.
There are several styles — including Yang, Chen and Sun — named after prominent teachers or founders. “Although there are differences, there are many more commonalities,” Wayne said, and no scientific evidence that any one is superior. For beginners, Chock recommends the Yang style; it’s the most popular, so you’ll have many classes from which to choose.
No standardized certification exists for instructors, so Wayne suggests searching online for schools and classes.
Visit at least two classes to make sure you’re comfortable with the space, teaching style and your classmates. “Tai chi is experiential; you have to go and try it and feel it,” Chock said.
Some schools are pricey — perhaps $25 and up per class — but others offer lower or sliding-scale fees, and you might find free classes through park districts or community organizations. You can also learn online, and some instructors who are also health care providers have virtual courses for people with arthritis and other health conditions, Sammut said.
Beginner classes include foundational exercises, slowly introducing concepts and principles before moving into simple choreography. It also helps to see the names of tai chi movements as tools that aid visualization, Chock said. For example, if you are doing “The White Crane Spreads Its Wings,” you can “actually imagine a crane spreading its wings.”
Despite the martial arts foundation, you most likely won’t fight. Advanced students may spar against partners, but most classes teach movements for individuals. Here are four appropriate for beginners.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees gently, pick up your left foot and take a large step to the left. Center your body weight. Begin rocking back and forth by lifting your heels, then your toes, then your heels again.
Each time you come forward onto your toes, bring your arms up to chest height with your palms down and your wrists soft. As you rock back on your heels, bring your arms back down to your sides, palms facing back.
Raising the power
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, then pick up your left foot and take a large step to the left. Bend your knees into a slight mini-squat as you raise your arms up in front of you, keeping your wrists and hands relaxed. Then press your hands back down as you gradually straighten your legs.
Wave hands like clouds
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, then gently bend your knees as you pick up your left foot and take a large step to the left. Straighten your knees, and as you do, lift your arms to chest height, palms facing down and hands and wrists loose and relaxed. Calmly bend your knees down into a mini-squat, arms in front of you. Turn at your waist so your stomach and chest face right; as you do, shift your weight onto your right leg and brush your right hand up and across, in front of your face, palm facing inward. Once your hand crosses your midline, lower your arm.
Repeat in the other direction, turning your torso to the left, shifting your weight onto your left leg, and brushing your left hand up and in front of your face and then back down.
Washing yourself with qi from the heavens
Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, then lift your left foot to take a large step to that side. Slowly lift your arms up to your sides and then overhead. Circle your hands, palms down, in front of your face and toward the floor. Visualize rejuvenating energy flowing through your body, anchoring you to the ground.