Tai Chi: A Gentle Winter Workout to Build Flexibility and Ease Stress

Weather forecasters are predicting an especially cold and wet winter this year. That means you’ll need some ways to maintain your fitness while indoors. It’s the perfect time to take up a tai chi practice.

Tai chi is a low-impact, gentle form of movement. It can be practiced inside or out, and requires no equipment. You don’t need to be in good shape or good health to begin studying it.

Tai chi was originally developed as a martial art, and incorporates ideas from Chinese medicine and philosophy. It’s often referred to as “meditation in motion.” The Chinese describe tai chi as an internal martial art, emphasizing the meditative and spiritual aspects of the form. (External martial arts, like kung fu, focus more on fighting.)

You may have seen groups of older folks practicing tai chi in a park or senior center, but you’d be mistaken if you thought it was too slow-moving to give you a good workout. Tai chi can be a great form of exercise for young, healthy adults, too.

Health Benefits of Tai Chi

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), more than 500 clinical trials were published through 2016 on the health benefits of tai chi. They report “excellent evidence of benefit for improving balance and aerobic capacity in those with poor fitness.”

In fact, tai chi appears to be an ideal form of exercise for those with a many different health conditions, and even for people recovering from a heart attack or stroke. For older adults, evidence suggests that tai chi is beneficial for preventing falls and improving cognitive ability.

Studies also indicate that a regular tai chi practice can improve sleep quality and alleviate insomnia, depression and anxiety. Tai chi has also been demonstrated to reduce blood pressure and improve immune function.

Mind-Body Connection

David Goodell, lead teacher at the Seattle School of Tai Chi Chuan, says “tai chi is a healing path – mentally, spiritually, and physically.”

“As young children,” says Goodell, “we are more in tune with our bodies.” Children breathe deeply and use their full lung capacity. They walk straight and erect. “We start out with natural tai chi, and over the course of our lives we lose it,” says Goodell. The practice of tai chi helps us restore the balance and harmony between body and mind.

Goodell says there are three aspects of mind:

  1. thinking mind
  2. still mind – the pause between thoughts
  3. observing mind – the place where we observe our thoughts and emotions

Tai chi helps us to “expand the pause between thoughts,” says Goodell. In this space between thoughts, we learn to relax and center ourselves.

The Practice of Tai Chi

“What makes tai chi different from other systems of self-defense or movement is that we work with a particular set of principles,” Goodell says. Before you take your first tai chi course or watch any YouTube videos, take time to observe the class first. Goodell says all tai chi instruction should include these principles:

  1. Relax. It’s the opposite of tensing yourself up for an encounter.
  2. Establish a comfortable connection with the ground. Let your feet relax and allow your weight to spread evenly across the bottoms of your feet.
  3. Imagine that you’re suspended from above. Picture a string attached to the top of your head that aligns your spine and your whole body.
  4. Let your breathing relax. When you breathe in, fill your lungs from the bottom to the top.
  5. Focus your attention on your center of gravity. The Chinese call this the “tan tian,” (pronounced “dan tee-en”). As you move through the tai chi postures, your movements should originate from this center of gravity.

Tai Chi at Home

The Seattle School of Tai Chi Chuan teaches the Yang short form style of tai chi. The short form involves 37 positions, and Goodell says that it takes about 8 minutes to run through all of them. He likes to practice tai chi in the morning to help him start his day.

He says many people feel happier in the morning after doing a few minutes of tai chi.

Though the Seattle School of Tai Chi Chuan is not offering online courses during the COVID-19 pandemic, The Tai Chi Foundation offers free online courses.

If you’d like to read more about tai chi, you’ll find good information in The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi: 12 Weeks to a Healthy Body, Strong Heart, and Sharp Mind.

Image by Nattakorn Maneerat