Many of the benefits of tai chi training are well known — others less so. Tai chi is often recommended by doctors to their patients, to help with a number of different conditions, most especially back and joint pain, but it also has benefits in other areas, perhaps less obvious to non-Chinese — and to doctors! We’re going to discuss some of them here.
INCREASED LUNG CAPACITY
The way we are taught to breathe in tai chi is different to everyday breathing, and makes full use of the lungs. Breaths are long and deep, and the breathing cycle is continuous — we do not hold our breath during training. We use this breath to move, rather than using muscle power, which sounds counterintuitive — how can you move without using your muscles, right? But this is why tai chi looks so graceful when done correctly. When we have more air in our lungs, we have more energy, and are thus more productive and less sluggish. It also helps with the smooth flow of qi (chi), or life force, through our body.
Increased leg strength, improved flexibility and wider range of motion mean our balance improves the more we practise tai chi. If we have good balance, we are less likely to fall over when pushed or when we trip up, and our posture also improves with time and practice. Improved balance also prevents falls in older people, as the fear of falling is reduced, and it’s the fear of falling that is the biggest predicator of an actual fall. For younger people, if we attain good balance now, this will prevent numerous problems as we get older.
Training applications tells us whether we have been doing the movements correctly when training alone — often, we find we have to shift our weight in order for a movement to be have the desired effect on an opponent. This information can then be retained for when we’re training alone again, and our movements should have noticeably improved.
IMPROVED COGNITIVE FUNCTION
It is often said in class that training makes you more intelligent! Bonus! Because of the flow of air, energy, qi (in Chinese medicine, these are all the same) and blood through our body, including through and around our brain, improved cognitive function is a benefit we can all enjoy. Tai chi makes us smarter!
Training tai chi improves organ health because of the flow of clean qi through the body. Everyday life induces stress and our meridians (energy lines) can become blocked. Allowing clean qi to flow through our body can unblock these meridians. If you have an injury, the increased qi flow will aid the healing process, which is one reason you should not put your training on hold if you have an injury.
Old injuries, even ones from years back that you may have forgotten about, will also benefit from the increased qi flow — it will feel like the injury has flared up, but don’t worry, this is simply a part of the healing process. In a similar way, an old injury may also be the direct cause of a blocked meridian, and the clean qi flowing through it will unblock it for you (which is why it can be painful).
The flow of clean qi through our body helps keep our internal organs healthy and the physical parts of the training also gently massage them as they move around each other. Overall, the long-term benefits of clean qi flow throughout the body cannot be overstated.
RECOVERY FROM (and prevention of) ILLNESS
As with recovery from injury, the flow of clean qi through your body will help fight infections and viruses, and will also help keep you healthier so that you’re overall less susceptible to illness in the first place. Training also increases blood flow, taking oxygen around your body, which also helps you to recover more quickly than you otherwise might.
Any form of exercise is good for stress reduction, and tai chi particularly so, as the movements are slow and measured. This forces us to look our mistakes in the eye — we can’t hide them from our instructor, even while we often seem almost wilfully to hide them from ourselves! However, determination to get the movements right means we concentrate on the job at hand, rather than allowing the outside world to intrude — at least, that’s the idea! These things are easier said than done.
Also, tai chi is often described as a form of moving meditation, because it allows us — indeed, requires us — to clear our minds of all the clutter that’s built up in there since our last session. With reduced stress comes increased emotional relaxation, and as so many of us have busy lives and even busier minds, we all have a need to calm down. Tai chi helps us achieve this.
The flexibility that tai chi requires of us ensures we force our body into the correct position for the movements to be effective. Remember the movements all have a purpose — nothing is superfluous, or just for show. Everything is for something, which means we have to focus on all parts of our body at the same time. And this is another reason tai chi makes us smarter!
IMPROVED MUSCLE / CORE STRENGTH
As we discipline our body to do what we need it to do, our muscles strengthen, and the postures we must maintain if the movements are to work means our core strength is also increased. And with stronger muscles and a stronger core comes improved posture.
Your posture can be good, fine, bad or (in some cases) terrible when you begin training — it will improve. Most of us don’t need to do anything else, as when we train, our posture will take care of itself. However, modern lifestyles are mostly sedentary, and too much sitting can ruin your body structure. In that case, your instructor may give you specific things to do that will improve your posture, and you will quickly notice a difference. Whatever your posture at the start, you will make improvements. Good posture means you appear confident and assured — and you’ll feel it, too. You’ll just sense it. And when you look confident, people will think twice about attacking you.
Some people are naturally patient. Others… less so! If you’re one of the latter, you may think you don’t have the patience that tai chi requires. Everything takes so long! You may be working on one move for weeks, months or even longer, but if you run out of patience, guess what will happen? You’ll never learn that next move! So, patience comes with the curiosity that is constantly being generated by tai chi practice. If you run out of patience and quit, you’ll never find out what else it could have given you. And you know what they say: patience is a virtue. It’s just that it may be a virtue you didn’t know you possessed until you started training tai chi!
Everything about tai chi training comes with its own benefits, and the longer you train, the more benefits you’ll notice. Tai chi is not an easy option, however! Remember it’s a martial art, and is designed to hurt someone. It’s not just slow, simple movements that help relax us. In fact, their slowness shows up mistakes that kung fu (because it’s done faster) can hide. Tai chi is difficult. But because it’s so difficult, the rewards are truly endless.