When you see someone doing tai chi you may think it looks like slow-motion self defense. And in a sense, you’re right. But there’s more to it.

This ancient form of exercise began in China as a martial art. Now a mind-body practice that comes with many health benefits, it’s a way to get exercise, meditate, and manage stress at the same time. Many people find it to be an exercise they can enjoy for life. If you’re unfamiliar with the practice of tai chi and wonder if it’s something you should try, here are the basics.

Why Try It?

There are many types of exercise to choose from, so why choose tai chi? Tai chi is based on the ancient Chinese philosophy of qi and yin and yang. Qi is believed to be a force of energy that flows through the body, while yin and yang are opposites in the universe that must be balanced. The movements and breathing patterns of tai chi are thought to unblock and restore the natural flow of qi while promoting the harmony of yin and yang.

If you’re not into its mystic roots, you can still enjoy it. Tai chi is a low-impact exercise, so it’s great for people who are overweight, elderly, or have joint problems or arthritis. You may not leave sweaty and out of breath like you do after a cardio workout, but it is still an effective way to improve fitness. The graceful movements increase strength, balance, and flexibility, while improving the health of your heart.

The focus on deep breathing and the attention given to your body sensations is relaxing and can be therapeutic. Tai chi is often called meditation in motion. The movements performed are smooth and circular, allowing your muscles to remain relaxed. Additionally, your joints are never fully bent or extended with tai chi, making it an adaptable exercise routine for anyone at any fitness level. For these reasons, it’s often used as a way to help aging folks prevent chronic health conditions or as a form of rehabilitation following an injury or illness.

How to Do Tai Chi

Tai chi can be done at home by yourself or in a group class led by an instructor. You’ll start with a warm-up that consists of easy motions to prep your joints and muscles for more movements.

There are different styles too. Some focus more on martial arts, others on health. You may move through short sets of graceful, focused movements made up of 12 or fewer movements or long sets that may include hundreds of movements. Regardless, your body will constantly move smoothly from one posture to the next, each movement having its own name. Beginners are encouraged to start with short and slow movements.

During the routine, attention is given to deep breathing to help the mind relax.

How to Start

You can do tai chi by watching a video, but you’ll get the most benefit by learning from a qualified instructor who can guide you through proper form. As you see the instructor in action and enjoy the social aspect of the class, you’ll see if it is the type of exercise you’ve been looking for. If interested, ask your trainer about available classes that are available to you. Once you join a class, commit for a few months before deciding if you want to quit or keep going.

Tai chi requires no special equipment and can be done inside or outside, alone or with a group. When heading to a class, wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothes. Special tai chi shoes are also out there, but there’s no need. You’ll do fine in supportive, flexible shoes or even barefoot.

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