by Karen Schroeder, MS, RD Breathe in, breathe out. Let your chest rise, now let it fall. Shift your body weight to your left leg and stretch your arms out to the left, now slowly sway your arms and your body weight over to the right. Complementary movements; mental and physical balance; yin and yang. This is the essence of tai chi. Understanding Tai Chi Chuan According to Chinese medicine, the universe is run by a single principle, the Tao, which is made up of the yin and the yang which are two opposing, yet complementary principles. For example, the yin includes femaleness, the moon, cold, and matter, while maleness, the sun, heat, and energy are relatively yang. "Chi" refers to our energy, vitality, or life force. And "tai chi" is translated as "all encompassing" or "supreme ultimate," because of its embodiment of both the yin and the yang. "Chuan," often used in the name, translates to "fist" or "boxing," and signifies exercise. Peter Wayne, PhD, director of the Tree of Life Tai Chi Center in Somerville, MA, describes tai chi as "moving meditation." Through the slow and careful movements of tai chi, Dr. Wayne explains, "People learn to focus on each motion, and become aware of the processes in their bodies and mind. We strive for simple and peaceful quality of physical movement and mental thought. During special moments, practice may even generate spiritual insights."
In Chinese medicine, pain or sickness is believed to occur when the flow of the chi is blocked, and yin and yang energies are out of balance. When the chi is circulating freely, physical symptoms disappear. The joints are seen as gates that control the flow of chi; the slow, gentle, swaying movements, deep breathing, and mental focus of tai chi are designed to relieve tension, open up these joints, and allow chi to move effortlessly throughout the body.
Tai chi is purported to be good for all health concerns. A number of renowned tai chi masters are said to have experienced sickness in the past from which they could find no relief until they began to practice tai chi. Such reports, however, are merely anecdotes, and may not represent actual benefit.
The scientific research done thus far has involved small groups of people. But Dr. Wayne notes that these studies are promising and suggest specific benefits. At Emory University, researchers found that elderly people who practiced tai chi regularly were less likely to fall, and less likely to hurt themselves from a fall than a similar group of people given balance training, but no tai chi instruction.
Other studies have suggested improvements in flexibility, strength, and cardiovascular fitness, which may bring relief to people recovering from heart surgery or dealing with such conditions as arthritis, back pain, fibromyalgia, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, and hypertension. However, none of these studies reach a sufficient level of rigor that can actually prove tai chi is specifically effective.
Learning to Practice Tai chi involves virtually no impact and no equipment, and requires only your motivation and perseverance. With the supervision of a qualified instructor, people of any physical condition can begin to practice with little concern for injury. Dr. Wayne suggests starting with a group class. To find a teacher you'll be compatible with, ask members of different classes about their teachers. There is a great variety of styles of tai chi, and an even greater variety of teaching styles. In some traditional classes, there is little verbal communication and the students learn by watching. In other classes, the teacher may speak throughout and often use imagery to describe body movements ("let your spine hang gently like a necklace of pearls") and to guide meditation ("let the energy flow through you like water down a stream"). There is no national certification program for tai chi instructors, rather there is an informal hierarchy. Typically, those who call themselves "masters" have extensive experience, however, anyone can adopt this title. Ask potential instructors about their experience and their specific style, and compare sample classes if possible. Balancing Your Chi Whether you have a specific health condition or wish to maintain your current state of health, balancing your yin and yang energies through the practice of tai chi may bring peace and vitality to your mind, your body, and your life.
RESOURCES: National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicinehttp://nccam.nih.gov/ National Library of Medicinehttp://www.nlm.nih.gov/ CANADIAN RESOURCES: Canadian Health Networkhttp://www.canadian-health-network.ca/ Tai Chi Yukon http://www.taichi-yukon.ca/ References: Tai Chi Academy website. Available at: http://www.taichiacademy.com. T'ai Chi Ch'uan website. Available at: http://www.maui.net/~taichi4u/taichi.html. Yang Style Tai Chi website. Available at: http://www.chebucto.ns.ca/Philosophy/Taichi/. Last reviewed February 2008 by Ryan Estvez, MD, PhD, MPH Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.