Tai Chi: Medicine In Motion

At first glance and knowing nothing about Tai Chi, it may seem like nothing much is happening outside of meditative moves. However, tai chi can fool the observer in this way because it’s more than meditation. In fact, Tai Chi’s health benefits have appeared in over 500 studies in the last half-century.

Tai Chi developed as a martial art form in China thousands of years ago. While it originated as a self-defense technique, newer styles center on its physical and psychological benefits. Tai Chi loosely means the supreme ultimate, and the practice is based on the Chinese philosophy of Taoism. Taoism recognizes the universe has opposing elements, yin and yang. Yin is soft, pliant, and female. Yang is hard, rigid, and masculine. Harmony happens when yin and yang are in balance. Tai chi promotes harmony.

The Chinese concept of qi is also a part of the Tai Chi philosophy. Qi is the energy force that flows through the body. Qi can become blocked, and when blocked can cause illnesses. Tai Chi encourages the flow of qi.

There are five main styles of Tai Chi. Each one is interrelated and based on the original Chen style.

  • Chen is the oldest style of Tai Chi. It’s fast-paced and useful for learning martial arts principles. Chen is physically demanding.
  • Yen is a gentle exercise that focuses on large sweeping movements at a slow, steady pace.
  • Wu involves small, smooth movements done slowly. Straightness of the lower back and a slightly inclined front are also hallmarks of this form. It embodies the philosophy of less-is-more.
  • Yang is the most popular form of Tai Chi. The movements are slow and steady to allow practitioners to experience the flow of qi through their bodies. It focuses on grace and relaxation in the movements. Even some of the moves have lyrical names, such as “Grasping the Sparrows Tail.”
  • Sun is a recent form of Tai Chi, and the movements are small with a backward and forward flow. The steps are lively with one foot following the other. Sun is easy on the knees as is recommended for older adults or people with physical challenges. Sun Tai Chi is second in popularity.

Overall, Tai Chi movements shift body weight from side to side, back and forward, and in circles. These movements help the strengthen muscles that stabilize the body like the hips and improve spatial awareness according to Linda Larkey, Ph.D., a professor in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at Arizona State University[i]. Studies indicate these movements along with breathing techniques and mindfulness offer the practitioner a cornucopia of benefits; some of them are listed below.

Tai Chi Improves Balance

Research shows that Tai chi can help older adults with balance and stability. It may also reduce the risk of falling in this population. A 2012 study of 195 mild-to-moderate Parkinson’s patients showed tai chi improved their balance better than resistance training or stretching. A 2014 follow-up analysis of patient-based reports showed that participants would continue with the exercises because of the benefits.

A study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found a 43 percent decrease in falls involving older adults who were followed for a year. Other research suggests that Tai Chi can cut the chance of falling in half.

Tai Chi Helps Chronic Pain

Fibromyalgia patients in a study reported that sleep, the ability to cope with pain, fatigue, and depression related to fibromyalgia improved. After 12 weeks, participants in the same survey reported better quality of life and functional mobility, such as walking and being able to shop. A review of some studies showed that Tai Chi might have the same treatment effect as over-the-counter pain relievers.

Tai Chi Aids Sleep

Studies have shown that Tai Chi may help in the treatment of chronic insomnia. Another study showed tai chi helped older adults with moderate sleep problems. Participants in a study at the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA took less time to fall asleep, woke less during the night, and felt rested upon awakening in the morning.

Tai Chi Improves Cognitive Function

In older adults, Tai Chi has shown potential to improve cognitive functions in both people with and without cognitive impairment, such as dementia.

Tai Chi Good for Cardiovascular Health

Several studies have shown that Tai Chi may help with heart health and especially in patients with recent myocardial infarction.

Other Health Benefits of Tai Chi

Tai Chi is not just about movement; mindfulness is also an aspect of it. Mindfulness along with focused breathing calms the nervous system, which can reduce inflammation, anxiety, and blood pressure.

The Canadian Family Physician journal did a review of the benefits of Tai Chi. It reported Tai Chi could help ease the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and hypertension.

When looking for a class that has the same benefits as shown in studies, make sure the instructions include the essential elements of Tai Chi, rhythmic breathing, and the slow movements. The arm and leg movements should emphasize coordination and balance. Any tai chi class should also include mindfulness.

One of the great things about Tai Chi is that almost anyone from the young to the old can practice it. Although, if you have a medical condition or are older, check with your doctor first before engaging in any exercise, especially if you haven’t exercised in awhile.

Tai chi is a different kind of exercise that focuses on a relaxed rather than a tense body. Movements are not forced, and it can be adapted to anyone. It can balance a high-intensity exercise program, be an exercise for people just starting to exercise, be adjusted for people in wheelchairs, or for those recovering from surgery.

[i] Lee, Janet. The Benefits of Learning Chi, September 29, 2017, Web.


Booe, Martin. Which is the Best Tai Chi Style to Learn? (January 30, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.livestrong.com/article/344988-which-is-better-pilates-or-tai-chi/.

Lam, Paul, Dr. History of Tai Chi. Retrieved from https://taichiforhealthinstitute.org/history-of-tai-chi-2/.

Tai Chi: What the Science Says (August 2015). Retrieved from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/providers/digest/taichi-science.

Lee, Janet. The Benefits of Learning Chi (September 29, 2017). Retrieved from https://www.consumerreports.org/alternative-medicine/benefits-of-learning-tai-chi/.

Scott, Phil. Staying Sharp: Tai Chi and Sleep (October 9, 2008). Retrieved from https://www.aarp.org/personal-growth/life-long-learning/info-10-2008/tai_chi_helps_sleep.html.

The Health Benefits of Tai Chi (December 4, 2015). Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-health-benefits-of-tai-chi.

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