Tai Chi has its roots in the ancient Chinese disciple of qigong—a martial art originally practiced for its applicability of self-defense and health benefits. Qigong is a system that uses various techniques of movement, breathing, meditation, and posture to cultivate a sense of peace and calm. One of its derivatives, Tai Chi, involves a complex series of slow and graceful movements that reflect a synthesis of meditation and yoga.
There are several key concepts that encompass this ancient martial art, including the notion of qi. Theoretically, individuals possess internal energy that flows throughout the body and acts as a life force. One of the most fundamental goals of Tai Chi is to allow this qi to remain balanced and circulating smoothly. Hence, this delicate maintenance of qi is profoundly critical for health in terms of both physical and mental. The principle of fostering one’s qi is best encompassed in an ancient Chinese proverb: “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” However, regardless of its existence, Tai Chi has been linked to tangible health benefits such as increasing energy, stamina, and overall vitality within an individual.
Tai Chi is also commonly associated with the concept of yin-yang, which refers to the inherent disposition of duality in nature. Yin-yang is thus reflected in Tai Chi’s emphasis on balance and posture.
There are several forms of Tai Chi, including the most popular: Chen, Yang, Wu, Sun, as well as a combative form known as “pushing hands”. Although these forms emphasize different aspects of the martial art, they all provide some fundamental benefits.
The majority of scientific research for health benefits encompass Tai Chi’s capacity for fall prevention. In fact, the leading cause of injury and death for older adults is fall-related, such as hip fractures. As Tai Chi requires slow and mindful movements in coordination with shifting of weight and use of the vestibular and kinesthetic senses, many studies point to its benefits of improving balance. Other notable benefits include positive influences on flexibility, muscular strength, and fitness. Muscular strength contributes to many other health benefits, including protection of joints and agility.
Tai Chi is most commonly known to alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression. It’s meditative nature of mindful movements and awareness of oneself provides a calm and tranquil mindset. Many studies provide considerable support for Tai Chi’s capability of cultivating serenity. Furthermore, the immune system is dependent on psychological well-being. Ergo, better mental health leads to fewer illnesses, better sleep quality, a lower blood pressure, and better cardiovascular health.
Other studies point to deeper health benefits of Tai Chi for more severe illnesses, such as diabetes, fibromyalgia, chronic heart failures, and even cognitive impairments such as Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injuries, and insomnia.
Tai Chi has practical advantages over other forms of aerobic exercises, such as its low risk of injury, and low impact movements. Marvin Smalheiser, a historian of Oriental studies, states some Tai Chi masters in history were “able to throw an attacker effortlessly to the floor with the attacker and spectators unable to clearly see how it was done.” Furthermore, he says, “Their movements [used] internal energy and [were] too subtle for most people to observe.” Tai Chi has therefore been most widely adopted within the demographic of older adults for its most basic form of meditative and mindful exercise.