By Dr. Mark Wiley
Premodern civilizations had developed a vast array of mind/body techniques and practices for achieving enlightenment, spirituality and long life. A few of them have survived into the modern age and today science it “catching up” with its realization that the ancient methods hold modern value. Tai chi is one such ancient practice that hails from China and is practiced by millions of people today.
Many describe tai chi as a slow moving meditation, and that is true. But it is so much more than that. Actually, tai chi is based on Daoist meditative energy-developing breathing exercises known as qigong. Both tai chi and qigong, and even the forms of Daoist meditation, are at their most effective when the practitioner aligns body, breath, and intention (or thought). In this full practice respiration, the body and the mind are in coordinated unison and this helps lower stress, reduce blood pressure, relax the muscles, and improve blood flow while bringing the person into a meditative state. It’s truly an amazing ancient practice that is in every way holistic!
Harvard Researcher Agrees…
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently reported on the healing powers of tai chi in their News In Health site. Dr. Peter Wayne, a Harvard Medical School tai chi researcher, had this to say:
“At its root, tai chi is about treating the whole person and enhancing the balance and crosstalk between the body’s systems… It’s a promising intervention for preserving and improving many areas of health, especially in older adults.”
Tai Chi is Perfect for Seniors
One of the most striking things one sees in the early mornings in Chinese parks in China, Hong Kong, SE Asia and even Los Angeles, are groups of seniors practicing tai chi and qigong at 5am to start their day! It is perhaps the perfect exercise for seniors because it is gentle, soft, flowing, slow and it moves the body through its full range of motions. Each joint is opened and closed. Each muscle is contracted and expanded. The mind is focused yet relaxed and respiration is raised slowly, gradually over the time it takes to complete the tai chi form of 108 movements. There are smaller 24 movement forms of tai chi, too.
In addition to the full-body movements that do not harshly impact joints, tai chi teaches balance through the stances, postures and movements. It also develops bone density by virtue of the weights placed on each leg alternately while moving into the stances and postures. These two benefits alone help reduce falls and strengthen the bones of seniors. This is important because each year over 25% of seniors fall, many causing injury and fracture to hips and head. Osteoporosis is also a concern as we age and short of weight training, tai chi is the best method for reversing that condition.
Tai Chi is a Lifestyle Modifier
According to the NIH research, not only does practicing tai chi help prevent falls by improving balance and confidence in walking in general, but also among the population with mild-to-moderate Parkinson’s disease. And there’s more, too:
“Research suggests that practicing tai chi might help improve posture and confidence, how you think and manage emotions, and your quality of life. Studies have found that it may help people with fibromyalgia sleep better and cope with pain, fatigue, and depression. Regular practice may also improve quality of life and mood in people with chronic heart failure or cancer. Older adults may find that tai chi can help improve sleep quality and protect learning, memory, and other mental functions.”
Creating better quality of life is what most people want, especially in their senior years when loss of functions becomes the norm rather than the exception. Tai chi is a great way to begin making fundamental changes for improvement.
Joining a class will provide you with a new social network and social gatherings each week. Following the class will make you feel part of a group, something larger than yourself. Doing the tai chi forms and practices will improve your balance, range of motion, bone density, heart and lung health. Memorizing and performing the form well over time will give you renewed sense of confidence. And when learning any new task neuroplasticity is at work, creating new neural pathways for brain health.
I’d like to conclude with a statement from the NIH report, which sums it up nicely.
“Whether you’re interested in trying tai chi to help with a chronic health issue or the stresses of everyday life, tai chi—if taught properly—can be a great complement to other ways of healthy living and rehabilitation,” Wayne says. “I think we’re all looking for tools to help us live productive, long lives with a little more grace and ease.”
And if you are interested to learn more about the full practice and methods of tai chi, you should consider reading Wisdom of Taiji Master. If you are more interested in standing or seated meditative practices that are the foundation of tai chi, check out Internal Elixir Cultivation: The Nature of Daoist Meditation.
Interested in learning tai chi. I live in Saint Cloud, Fl.