On a recent trip to China, I couldn’t help take notice of how many people practice the ancient art of Tai Chi – a spiritual exercise program. Everywhere I went I saw people practicing it in parks and other public places. The people I spoke to about Tai Chi all told me basically the same thing – Tai Chi offers amazing health benefits for your body as well as your spirit. When I came back to the states, I did a little research on the many body/spirit benefits of Tai Chi. Let me tell you what I learned about this incredible form of exercise.
What is Tai Chi?
Being a cardiologist, I was particularly interested in the possible heart health benefits that practicing Tai Chi might offer my patients. The Chinese often refer to Tai Chi as “meditation in motion”. And, really, when you see it practiced, it does seem as if Tai Chi practitioners are in a kind of meditative trance. They consciously direct their bodies to move in very deliberate and measured patterns of peaceful movement and breathing.
Although Tai Chi is a very gentle form of exercise, it ironically originated as a martial art. And, there are some versions of Tai Chi still practiced today in which the moves are more geared to self-defense and fighting than achieving spiritual harmony. Yet, no matter whether you practice the tranquility inducing “white crane spreads its wings” or the aggressive “box both ears” moves of Tai Chi, you’ll still be getting a remarkable range of health benefits.
Protect Your Heart with Tai Chi
Tai Chi offers health benefits for people of any age, occupation, or lifestyle. It requires no equipment, just some comfortable clothes and a quiet, clear space where you can freely practice its moves. You can even do Tai Chi movements from a wheelchair.
Unlike other forms of exercise, Tai Chi is very low impact, slow motion exercise in which you go through a series of moves named, mostly, for the graceful actions of animals. In Tai Chi, your muscles are always relaxed, your joints are never fully extended or bent, and you move in an organic, circular motion so that connective tissues – like ligaments and tendons – aren’t strained or pulled. Watching Tai Chi in motion, I instantly saw why it can be so beneficial to your heart. Here are some of Tai Chi’s heart health benefits:
- Release of tension/stress, lowering of blood pressure. Stress is the #1 aggravator of heart disease through elevated blood pressure.
- Improves breathing and blood flow. Oxygen is crucial to your heart’s healthy function. Gentle Tai Chi moves help improve oxygen intake without overtaxing your heart.
- Regulates heart rhythms. Tai Chi’s ability to improve sleep patterns can have a significant impact on normalizing irregular heartbeats.
- Normalized heart rate and general cardiovascular performance.
Protect Your Spirit with Tai Chi
Your heart’s good health and function is directly influenced by your mind function. If you’re going around tense, angry and stressed out, your mind pinging in 10 different directions at once, constantly turning issues over and over, your heart is going to react – negatively. Tai Chi helps relax your mind and turn off the “mind noise” that can help you achieve spiritual harmony, and better heart health, in these ways:
- Increases calm and mental focus by learning how to tune out troublesome issues.
- Heightens awareness. By learning how to focus on calm and stillness, you’ll be amazed at the calming sights and sounds around you that you’ve been unaware of.
- Turns off effects of hectic daily life bustle by practicing stillness of movement.
Other Health Benefits of Tai Chi
Tai Chi doesn’t just benefit your heart and your spiritual health. It can also have a significant impact on other conditions too. Here are a few of its far-reaching benefits:
- Boosts the immune system. When you reduce stress, you reduce the stress-hormone cortisol. Inflammation gets turned down/off and your immune system gets stronger.
- Helps build bones and muscles. Recent research out of Sydney, Australia has proved that practicing Tai Chi can be of significant value to people over 50. It helps build bones and muscles thereby preventing muscle loss, bone loss and resultant falls and fractures.
- Improves sleep. Daily exercise releases tension in muscles. It increases the “feel good” endorphin hormones in the brain that help relax the mind as well as the body. Sleep comes more easily when your muscles and mind are relaxed.
- Improves spinal alignment. Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors, as well as Acupuncturists, believe that the “life force” of your body, your qi, or chi, is blocked if your body is out of alignment. Tai Chi moves aim to re-align your body to get your life force moving correctly again, thereby energizing all organs of your body properly. Chiropractors also believe that that the nerves leading off your spinal canal deliver critical messages from your brain to all the organs of your body. If your spine is poorly aligned, the nerve messages to your organs can be significantly blocked.
How Can You Get Started with Tai Chi?
Tai Chi instruction DVD videos and books are available for you to self-learn the movements and principles of Tai Chi. But I would strongly recommend that, if you’re able, take a beginning class in Tai Chi with an experienced instructor. I think you’ll get a lot more out of the experience of learning the moves and philosophy of practicing Tai Chi. It can help to have an in-person instructor help you perfect the specific moves.
Besides, one other factor of practicing Tai Chi is that it’s a “social art” – meaning you can have better relaxation results when practiced with a group than by yourself. Taking a class in Tai Chi can help you both learn a healthy new exercise form and also make a few new friends at the same time. Zhù nǐ shēn tǐ jiàn kāng! (I wish you a healthy life!)
Ron Blankstein, M.D.
Natural Health News
A randomized trial of Tai Chi for the prevention of falls, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17661956?ordinalpos=1&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_DiscoveryPanel.Pubmed_RVAbstractPlus
Tai Chi Health Benefits, http://www.clearstaichi.com/tai-chi-master/health-benefits-research-on-tai-chi
The Health Benefits of Tai Chi, http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Womens_Health_Watch/2009/May/The-health-benefits-of-tai-chi
Photo Credit: skintosoul.com