T’ai chi (pronounced: TY CHEE) is great for improving flexibility and strengthening your legs, abs, and arms.
What Is T’ai Chi?
When you think about martial arts, karate and judo may come to mind. T’ai chi, sometimes called t’ai chi chuan, is an ancient Chinese martial art that was developed to help a person’s physical and emotional well-being.
T’ai chi is like a combination of moving yoga and meditation. In t’ai chi a person does breathing exercises at the same time as going through a series of slow, graceful, flowing postures. People who practice t’ai chi believe the postures improve body awareness and build strength and coordination. Many people who practice t’ai chi say that they feel more peaceful and relaxed afterward.
In ancient China, people believed that the body was filled with energy, or chi. They thought that chi could become blocked, causing illness and disease. They believed that a person could help improve the flow of chi throughout the body and improve health by practicing t’ai chi exercises.
As with yoga, there are different styles of t’ai chi, including:
- Chen style
- Hao (or Wu Shi) style
- Hu Lei style
- Sun style
- Yang style
- Zhao Bao style
The different types vary in intensity and focus. For example, Sun style is known for its fast footwork. The low-impact movements of Hao style can be practiced by people who are elderly or have special needs. In general, though, practicing t’ai chi improves strength, flexibility, and respiratory function (breathing).
So where can you do t’ai chi? Many fitness centers or community centers like the YMCA offer classes. Lots of t’ai chi instructors also offer private classes. You can also find t’ai chi exercises online or on DVD.
Before you start your first t’ai chi workout, dress comfortably so you can move and stretch easily. Shorts or tights and a T-shirt or tank top are great choices. Because t’ai chi is a martial art, some people who practice it wear a martial arts training uniform. T’ai chi is usually practiced barefoot or in comfortable socks and sneakers.
During a t’ai chi class, you’ll participate in forms. Each form is a series of movements that are done in a specific order. The poses that make up the forms sometimes have visually descriptive names, such as “white crane spreads its wings,” “needle at the bottom of the sea,” and “grasp sparrow’s tail.”
Before You Begin
Because t’ai chi is based on continuous, flowing, low-impact movements, it’s a good workout choice for just about anyone. But it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program, especially if you have a health problem.
Is your schedule jam-packed with school, work, and social activities? Here are a few tips for fitting in fitness and staying motivated:
- Try a little at a time. If you don’t have time to go through an entire t’ai chi routine, try breaking up your workout into 10- or 15-minute chunks. During a long study session, reward yourself every hour with a few minutes of t’ai chi.
- Go slow. Keep your expectations reasonable. Don’t expect to be able to do all the moves perfectly right away. Masters of t’ai chi work on the forms continuously for years to perfect them. T’ai chi isn’t a competitive sport, and the postures are meant to be done slowly for best results.
- Do what works for you. Some people like working out in the morning before the day’s activities sidetrack them; others find that a nighttime workout helps them unwind before bed. Experiment with working out at different times of the day and find the time that fits your schedule and energy level best.
- Get in a group. If you find that you aren’t motivated to work out by yourself, go to a few t’ai chi classes. An added benefit of taking the class: The teacher can help you with your form and give you tips to help you get the most from t’ai chi.
- Keep boredom at bay. Many people who work out regularly say that preventing boredom is the key to consistent workouts. Mix up your t’ai chi routine with walking, a yoga video, or other exercise.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: February 2015