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Tai Chi, Meditation in Motion

“Meditation in Motion”, this is often how tai chi is described because of its slow, low impact gentle movements.  Tai chi is a mind-body exercise that originated in China as a practice for fighting and self-defense.  Over time, it has been realized that tai chi has certain health benefits associated with its practice that a wide variety of age groups are taking advantage.  Seniors, in particular, have found this meditation in motion to be an exceptional form of exercise.

A person practicing tai chi moves their body in a slow, relaxed, and graceful series of movements.  There are different styles of tai chi, the simplest of which uses 12 movements, while more complex styles may have over 100 different movements.  No matter the style, each movement flows into the next, the entire body always in motion, with the movements performed gently.  As one moves, they focus on breathing deeply and naturally, turning their attention to their body.  Movements are mostly circular and never forced, muscles stay relaxed and joints are never fully extended.

Concepts of Tai Chi

You don’t necessarily have to believe in Chinese philosophy to enjoy tai chi and its health benefits, however an understanding of 2 concepts in particular may help make sense of tai chi and its approach.

Qi (Pronounced CHEE) is believed to be the energy force that flows through one’s body.  Tai chi is believed to unblock and encourage the proper flow of Qi.

Yin and Yang are believed to be forces that should be balanced.  In Chinese philosophy, they are two principles or elements that make up the universe and everything in it that oppose each other.  Yin is believed to be feminine in character while yang, masculine. 

Tai Chi, the Class

As previously mentioned, there are many different types of tai chi, however different; any given class may consist of the following parts:

Warm-up:  Easy motions, such as neck rotations, shoulder rotations, toe taps in multiple directions, and weight shifting; these motions help loosen the muscles and joints as well as bring focus to the body.

Qigong (pronounced Chee-gong):  Gentle breathing from the diaphragm combined with small movement, qigong can be translated as “breath work” or “energy work.”  Qigong helps relax the mind and strengthen the body’s energy.  Qigong can last anywhere from a minute to a few minutes.  

Form practice:  The act of engaging in the movements that make up the form of tai chi one may be practicing.  If someone is just starting tai chi a short form with smaller, slower movements would be most appropriate. 

Cool-Down:  Easy motions to help the body come down from your session such as toe raises, slight knee bends, opening and closing your hands lightly and another short session of qigong. 

Fitness Benefits of Tai Chi

Recent studies have shown that despite the fact that tai chi doesn’t make you feel breathless or tired, older adults that have participated in a tai chi program for at least 12 weeks, 2 to 3 times per week, have discovered wonderful strength, flexibility, and balance benefits. 

In a 2006 study published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, Stanford University researchers reported benefits of tai chi in 39 women and men, average age 66, with below average fitness and at least one cardiovascular risk factor.  After taking 36 tai chi sessions in 12 weeks, they showed improvement in both lower and upper body strength and flexibility (through Senior Fitness Test protocol).   

Tai chi helps improve balance by improving one’s ability to sense the position of their body in space.  The slow movements, deliberate weight shifts, and over all body awareness, are key components in balance improvement. 

Tai Chi Benefits Medical Conditions

As people age, they become more susceptible to health problems.  Certain medical conditions are more visible in older adults such as arthritis, low bone density, heart disease, hypertension, Parkinson’s disease, and stroke to just name a few.  Multiple studies have been instituted to find out if, along with standard treatment, the inclusion of tai chi in a treatment plan would be of benefit to individuals suffering different medical conditions.  The results have shown to be very encouraging.  

Tai chi helped reduce pain, improve physical function and mood for those with arthritis.  As reported by Harvard researchers, tai chi may be a safe and effective way to maintain bone density in postmenopausal women as well.  A study at Taiwan University found that a year of tai chi significantly boosted exercise capacity, lowered blood pressure, and improved levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, insulin, and C-reactive protein in people at high risk for heart disease. 

A study performed at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, found that people with mild to moderately severe Parkinson’s disease showed improved balance, walking ability, and overall well-being after 20 sessions of tai chi. 
In 136 patients who’d had a stroke at least six months earlier, 12 weeks of tai chi improved standing balance more than a general exercise program said the January 22009 issue of Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair.

Perfect Exercise for Seniors

Tai chi emphasizes everything that is important in good fitness programming for seniors - increasing ones strength, flexibility, and balance.  It is also the perfect complement to standard treatment for certain medical conditions.  As individuals reach the golden years, exercise and physical activity become even more important.  Tai chi is a great way of getting a good workout without feeling like exercise.  Increasing physical activity and exercise is an important component of successful aging.  Finding a tai chi program that is right for you would put you on the path of improved fitness and better overall health.   

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