+ Improves circulation
+ Helps prevent osteoporosis
+ Lowers blood pressure
+ Relieves tension
+ Enhances heart-lung capacity
If you've ever watched tai chi being practiced in a public park or in a class, then you already know its defining characteristics: grace, groundedness, and balance. What you don't see is effort, exertion, profuse sweating, or any other outward signs you may associate with rigorous exercise. That's because the philosophy behind this age-old practice is not "harder, faster, stronger," but slower, flowing, and balanced -- concepts that we'd do well to incorporate into our lives, not just into our fitness regimens.
A component of Traditional Chinese Medicine, tai chi began as a martial art and is largely used today for therapeutic purposes. The series of "forms" practiced in slow motion promotes the healthy flow of qi, or vital energy, throughout the body to improve balance, enhance coordination and focus, and build strength while reducing stress. When you slow yourself down, you can experience this strength as well as a sense of being grounded and become more mindful of your energy.
"That's why it's called an internal martial art," says James McConnell, a New York-based tai chi instructor, martial arts champion, and life coach. "Tai chi actually helps you develop an inner language as you learn your own energy."
McConnell recommends the following traditional sequence to help you maintain your balance and stay centered throughout the day. Don't worry too much about getting the positions exactly right; instead use the simple, slow motions and the quiet time to still the chatter in your mind.
1. Standing evenly on both feet
Time: 5 minutes
This first form, called wu chi in Chinese, is the cornerstone of tai chi practice because of its focus on complete stillness. By standing motionless for five minutes straight, you learn to listen to your body and your internal energies, which is where this practice begins.
Stand with feet just less than shoulder-width apart (feet right under armpits), with weight evenly distributed. Let your shoulders drop. In tai chi, your tailbone should weigh "a thousand pounds" -- in other words, drop it down toward the earth. Scan the body from head to toe, gradually letting go of each pocket of tension. Keep relaxing the body while breathing naturally. Keep your eyes open or at least half open.
2. Raising hands
Time: 2-4 minutes
Stand with shoulders and torso relaxed, feet parallel. Drop your weight down into your lower torso and upper legs, and distribute it evenly through the soles of the feet, as you did in the prior exercise.
Breathe through your nose, tongue gently touching the roof of your mouth. Keeping your arms straight, slowly raise them in front of you to shoulder height. Imagine that your wrists are tied to strings and are being lifted by them; let the hands dangle.
Once your arms reach shoulder height, straighten out the hands and fingers to form a straight line from elbow to fingertip. Slowly draw the hands back toward your shoulders as if they're moving along the top of a table in front of you; let your elbows drop naturally to the sides.
When you feel the beginnings of tension in your biceps, let your fingertips float up and let the palms glide down. Slowly lower your hands until they're beside your thighs, then begin again. Repeat this movement 10 to 15 times.
3. Weight on one leg
Time: 2 minutes
This form takes some strength. If it feels hard, you're doing it right -- cheating makes it easy but uses incorrect form. Pay close attention to where you put your feet and how your spine is aligned -- completely up and down.
This slow, deliberate exercise focuses on the smallest iota of movement, heightening awareness of all that goes on in your body, helping you learn how your energy flows.
Stand with feet spread slightly wider than shoulder width. Put your weight on your right foot, bend your right knee a bit, and point your left foot out, flexed and perpendicular to the right foot. Rest the left heel lightly on the ground with no weight on it. (If you can lift the heel an inch without moving any other part of your body, you are doing it correctly).
Imagine a string tied to the top of your head, and that your tailbone is dropping toward the floor -- this lengthens the spine. Be careful not to lean back on your heel or to one side. Keep the spine straight up and down.
Extend your left arm in front of you, elbow relaxed, forming a straight line from elbow to fingertips. Palm faces right. With right arm bent, move your hand so that your right palm faces the inside of your left elbow.
Keep all of your weight on your right thigh, with your right knee tracking over your toes; don't roll in. Hold for as long as you can, breathing normally.
Pivot to the other side, lowering your left foot to the ground and bending your left knee. Transfer your weight to the left. Taking the weight off your right foot, bring your arms to the right.
Text by Donna Raskin and Terri Trespicio