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The Overview of Tai Chi

Tai chi, pronounced "tie chee",  is a mind-body practice that originated in China as a martial art. A person doing tai chi moves his body slowly and gently, while breathing deeply and meditating (tai chi is sometimes called "moving meditation"). Many practitioners believe that tai chi helps the flow throughout the body of a proposed vital energy called qi(pronounced "chee," it means "air" or "power").

Tai Chi is also known other other spellings, such as TaiChiChuan, T'ai Chi, Taiji, etc.

A Brief History of Tai Chi

Tai chi developed in China in about the 12th century A.D. It started as a martial art, or a practice for fighting or self-defense, usually without weapons. Over time, people began to use tai chi for health purposes as well. Many different styles of tai chi, and variations of each style, developed. The term "tai chi" has been translated in various ways, such as "internal martial art," "supreme ultimate boxing," "boundless fist," and "balance of the opposing forces of nature." While accounts of tai chi's history often differ, the most consistently important figure is a Taoist monk (and semilegendary figure) in 12th-century China named Chang San-Feng (or Zan Sanfeng). Chang is said to have observed five animals--tiger, dragon, leopard, snake, and crane--and to have concluded that the snake and the crane, through their movements, were the ones most able to overcome strong, unyielding opponents. Chang developed an initial set of exercises that imitated the movements of animals. He also brought flexibility and suppleness in place of strength to the martial arts, as well as some key philosophical concepts.

The Core Philosophy of Tai Chi - Yin Yang

One of the core concepts of tai chi is that the forces of Yin and Yang should be in balance. In Chinese philosophy, yin and yang are two principles or elements that make up the universe and everything in it and that also oppose each other. Yin is believed to have the qualities of water--such as coolness, darkness, stillness, and inward and downward directions--and to be feminine in character. Yang is believed to have the qualities of fire--such as heat, light, action, and upward and outward movement--and to be masculine. In this belief system, people's yin and yang need to be in balance in order for them to be healthy, and tai chi is a practice that supports this balance.

The Three Basic Components of Tai Chi

When Tai chi is performed, three major components are working together -

  • Movement: When doing Tai Chi, individuals feel the ground with their feet, sink their weight to the ground, and maintain good body alignment to promote stability and balance. Movements flow from one to another, with body weight shifting from the right leg to left leg to balance the empty and full feeling. The movements make up what are called b>forms (or routines). Some movements are named for animals or birds, such as "White Crane Spreads Its Wings." The simplest style of tai chi uses 13 movements; more complex styles can have dozens.
  • Meditation: While performing the gentle and slow Tai Chi movements, individuals keep their mind calm and alert, concentrating on the inner self.
  • Deep breathing: With the flow of the movements, individuals exhale stale air and toxins from the lungs, inhale a plentitude of fresh air , stretches the muscles involved in breathing, and releases tension. This way, the entire body is supplied with fresh oxygen and nutrients.

Specific Health Purposes

Important note: if you practice Tai Chi for health purposes, it is important that you seek advice froml your main health care providers, such as your family doctors. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.

The three Tai Chi components can -

  • Massage the internal organs.
  • Aid the exchange of gases in the lungs.
  • Help the digestive system work better.
  • Increase calmness and awareness.
  • Improve balance.

People practice tai chi for various health purposes, such as:

  • For benefits from exercise:
    • Tai chi is a low-impact form of exercise.
    • It is a weight-bearing exercise that can have certain health benefits--for example, to the bones.
    • It is an aerobic exercise.
  • To improve physical condition, muscle strength, coordination, and flexibility.
  • To have better balance and a lower risk for falls, especially in elderly people.
  • To ease pain and stiffness--for example, from arthritis.
  • For health benefits that may be experienced from meditation.
  • To improve sleep.
  • For overall wellness.

Many people practice tai chi for health purposes. In the United States, a 2002 national survey on Americans' use of CAM found that 1.3 percent of the 31,000 survey participants had used tai chi for health reasons in the year before the survey. Tai chi is widely practiced in China (including in its hospitals and clinics) and in other countries with a substantial native-Chinese population. In Asia, many people consider tai chi to be the most beneficial exercise for older people, because it is gentle and can be modified easily if a person has health limitations.

Tai chi is a relatively safe practice. However, there are some cautions.

  • Tell your health care provider if you are considering learning tai chi for health purposes (especially if you have a health condition for which you are being treated, if you have not exercised in a while, or if you are an older person).
  • If you do not position your body properly in tai chi or if you overdo practice, you may get sore muscles or sprains.
  • Tai chi instructors often recommend that people not practice tai chi right after they eat, or when they are very tired, or when they have an active infection.
  • Use caution if you have any of the conditions listed below, as your health care provider should advise you whether to modify or avoid certain postures in tai chi:
    • Pregnancy
    • Hernia
    • Joint problems, back pain, sprains, a fracture, or severe osteoporosis

Licensing, Training, and Credentialing

In the United States, people do not have to be health professionals or to be licensed to practice or teach tai chi. The practice is not regulated by state or Federal governments. There is no standard training for tai chi teachers.

As the national trade organization dedicated to the Tai Chi industry, American Tai Chi and Qigong Association offers four levels of Tai Chi Certification for practitioners or instructors.

Formerly the Tai Chi for Consumer Health Information Center funded by The National Library of Medicine (NLM)
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