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How Does Tai Chi Work?

This mindful, gentle exercise practice is definitely one to try.

Woman in a yoga pose outside of a building

You’ve heard about yoga as a good exercise for your back pain and achy knees, but what about other mindful movement practices, like tai chi? Perhaps you’ve seen people practicing this ancient art in your local park, but you don’t know why they’re doing it, or what it can do for you. Here’s the 101:

What is tai chi?

Tai chi is a gentle type of exercise that generally consists of slow, flowing movements that nurture your life energy, or “qi,” and help it run smoothly through the body. It’s considered a soft, internal martial art, and people practice it for physical exercise, for health and wellbeing, and as a spiritual exercise. “For some people, tai chi is a moving meditation,” says Steve Shulman, an instructor at the New York School of Tai Chi Chuan, which is the New York City teaching location for the Tai Chi Foundation.

What are the benefits?

Practicing this slow art can improve a variety of things, including muscle strength, flexibility, balance and aerobic conditioning. It may also help lower blood pressure, and some limited studies found that tai chi may help with depression and anxiety, though more research needs to be done. One study showed that tai chi could be helpful as a rehab exercise after a cardiac event. “I think some hospitals are starting to include it in some of their care, or make it available,” Shulman says.

Due to the nature of tai chi, the exercise is easy on the joints, and it’s possible for anyone to try it. As long as your doctor signs off, you can try tai chi even if you have arthritis, and even if you’re in a wheelchair. It’s also, as Shulman points out, a kind of moving mindfulness—a chance to be fully present. “By focusing on our center, our thoughts can relax, and our emotions can calm,” he says.

Why does it work?

Because your immune system is linked to your level of stress, focusing on your conscious ability to relax helps it function in a healthier way. Plus, Shulman says, it gives us a chance to slow down in a world where the pace has become more and more frantic. “We run our lives in such a hectic, nonstop manner, and we’re not really constructed to flourish that way,” Shulman says. “It’s healthy for us to take a little bit of time every day to slow down, to relax, to meditate.”

How can I get started?

Taking a class is the best way to get started, especially since an instructor can help demonstrate proper form. Your local gym or community center may offer classes near your home, and the Tai Chi for Health Institute also offers a variety of programs for your specific needs. You could also ask that group in the park if you can join in.

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