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Tai Chi for Health

Written by Grandmaster Thomas Meade, Tai Chi Chuan Instructor 

Once learned and performed regularly, Tai Chi can be a positive general approach to improving overall health.  Tai Chi practicing seniors have a better overall quality of life with improvement noted in mental health and independence. Additional benefits include increased energy and stamina, improved flexibility, balance and agility, improved muscle strength and alleviation of joint pain. New research evidence indicates that Tai Chi may also help enhance quality of sleep and enhance the immune system,

Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese tradition that today is practiced as a graceful form of exercise and involves a series of movements performed in a slow focused manner accompanied by deep breathing. Tai Chi brings focus to the breath therefore creating a relaxed harmony within the body. A regular routine of at least one class per week provides maximum health benefits to participants. Tai Chi students experience, lower blood pressure, stress reduction, improved breathing, lower incidence of injuries and falls and many other documented health benefits.

It is especially helpful in reducing falls among elderly people because they become so much more aware of their movements in their practice, therefore, they tend to slow down in their everyday activities as well.  It is very much a mind-body connection and regular practitioners of Tai Chi begin to move with purpose and with increased stability. In one study of the exercise, senior citizens who take tai chi classes for one hour, twice a week, reported having an easier time with activities like walking, climbing, bending, lifting, eating and dressing than their peers who did not participate in the classes.

The essential principle underlying claims of increased health and stress reduction is the mental attitude pervading all Tai Chi practice. Practitioners are taught to develop a serene heart with a concentrated mind. As students learn to relax during performance, they begin to develop an awareness of mind/body control that may have not existed before. Not only does their increased physical muscle memory improve; but there are significant behavioral and cognitive improvements as well.  This results in increased self-worth and confidence.

Tai chi practitioners discover that they create their own emotions and are responsible for their actions. Such knowledge allows the students to change undesirable aspects of his or her character, which can result in a wide range of benefits. A decrease of physical and emotional tension from regular tai chi practice also stimulates certain areas of the brain responsible for controlling the body’s immune system, thus promoting resistance to illness and infection.

Students who participate regularly are stronger because they use their bodies in a kinetically correct fashion and therefore make full use of the body’s power through existing muscular strength, correct leverage and a knowledge of momentum. In other words, the kinetic efficiency of the body increases dramatically. This increase in ease of motion and correct posture alignment allows a Tai Chi practitioner to utilize up to 85% of their natural strength in contrast to the untrained person, who utilizes only about 45% of the available muscle efficiency. In short, what appears to be an increase in muscular power to some observers is merely the process of learning to use the body more effectively.

The movements involved are very precise and controlled.  When doing the exercise properly, the arms are never held against the body.  At their lowest position, they are just far enough away that a fist can be placed under the armpit.  The angle between the arms once they have been separated should be about 135 degrees. This occurs, for example, in the basic movement called separation of hands, in which the hands are slowly separated to the sides.  If the angle of the arms is more than 135 degrees, the chest would be open.  This violates an important Tai Chi requirement that one must empty the chest and expand the upper back.

The practice of Tai Chi promotes the circulation of Chi, known as life energy, within the body encouraging wellness and vitality of the person. During early mornings throughout China, it is normal to see small and large groups routinely gathering wherever there is available open space to practice their Tai Chi. Tai Chi is a safe and effective invigorating form of exercise for people of all ages and fitness levels.  It is a non-exhaustive way of maintaining and improving your current level of functioning. It is an ideal exercise for cardiac patients and others who are not physically active. Research has shown that it improves circulation, supplying blood to all the organs of the body allowing oxygen and nutrients to be more easily transported. In addition, it has been shown to improve the function of neurological, gastrointestinal, skeletal, and muscular system.  Tai Chi regulates blood pressure, and improves lung capacity, digestion and sleep disorders.

In Tai Chi, wherever there is movement, the whole body moves. This form of martial arts does not require strenuous action.  There is no jumping or running involved. It consists of controlled slow hand and arm movements, while making circular motions gently and smoothly. With its graceful fluid swan-like movements, the ancient Chinese tradition of Tai Chi can help improve overall health and vitality. The very nature of this meditation in motion keeps us limber and stress-free as we age.

Every Monday afternoon the residents at The Kensington Assisted Living eagerly look forward to participating in Tai Chi classes in Haven and Connections, Memory Care Neighborhoods. I created this holistic exercise program specifically for The Kensington residents, and it encompasses all aspects of the mind, the body and the spirit.  During the Tai Chi Program, participants engage in breathing exercises plus movement of upper body and lower extremities. These exercises are very easy to follow and are modified to accommodate wheelchair-bound individuals.  Results from these classes include increased body awareness, provision of a feeling of accomplishment and well-being, a boost in mobility and balance leading to fewer falls, and heightened self-confidence.  All in all, an easy and good Program to follow with very positive results!