Tai Chi, a branch of Qigong, has been practiced for over 2,000 years. Qigong has an even longer history, dating back about 5,000 years.1 Originating in China, these exercises are said to balance and harness qi (also spelled chi), or "life energy," and is frequently described as meditation in motion, as the activity takes you through a set of slow, gentle movements while you focus on your breath. Just looking at it, it may seem like these exercises do little in terms of exercising your body, but appearances can be deceptive.
Research shows Tai Chi and Qigong provide many physical and psychological benefits. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it helps channel qi through your body's energy meridians, thereby improving your overall health and well-being. More specifically, studies have shown Tai Chi stimulates the central nervous system, lowers blood pressure, relieves stress, tones muscles and helps with digestion and waste elimination.
Tai Chi may be particularly beneficial for the elderly, thanks to its low impact. You can even do Tai Chi if you're confined to a wheelchair. Those struggling with chronic pain or stiffness may also benefit a great deal. More often than not, one of the worst things you can do when you're in pain is to stay inactive, as this merely weakens your muscles further, increasing rather than lessening your pain and stiffness.
Tai Chi can also take the place of seated meditation if you struggle with the sitting still part. While practicing Tai Chi, your mind is meant to stay focused on your movements, relaxation and deep breathing, while distracting thoughts are ignored.
Medicinal Movements That Are Easy and Enjoyable to Practice
Qigong can be viewed as a medicinal movement practice, combining breath work, relaxation, movement and self-massage all in one. Many who try it for the first time will be struck by how invigorating Tai Chi can be. As scientific interest in this ancient system has grown over the years, a solid foundation of research has been laid, supporting its use for a variety of health conditions.
PubMed now lists well over 500 published articles on Qigong alone. In 2010, a comprehensive review2 of health benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi was published, reviewing the psychological and physiological outcomes of both branches of practice. In all, 77 randomized controlled trials (RCT) on Tai Chi and/or Qigong published between 1993 and 2007 were included in the review, which noted the many similarities between the two practices:
"These two forms of meditative movement, Qigong and Tai Chi, are close relatives having shared theoretical roots, common operational components and similar links to the wellness and health promoting aspects of traditional Chinese medicine.
They are nearly identical in practical application in the health enhancement context and share much overlap in what traditional Chinese medicine describes as the 'three regulations': body focus (posture and movement), breath focus and mind focus (meditative components). Due to the similarity of Qigong and Tai Chi, this review of the state of the science for these forms of meditative movement will investigate the benefits of both forms together."
The featured review was led by Roger Jahnke,3 a doctor of Chinese medicine who has spent many years training teachers to bring Qigong to communities, schools, prisons and homes for the elderly. Jahnke's book, "The Healer Within: Using Traditional Chinese Techniques to Release Your Body's Own Medicine," published in 1997, promoted Qigong as a potent self-care method.
His second book, published in 2002, "The Healing Promise of Qi: Creating Extraordinary Wellness Through Qigong and Tai Chi," goes a step further, presenting Qigong as a cost-saving antidote to the current health care crisis, providing guidelines for creating a personalized "self-healing regimen for any age or medical condition."
Undoubtedly, part of the benefit comes from its mind-body influence, including its focus on meditation. Even respected conventional health institutions such as the Mayo Clinic4 and Harvard Medical School5 recommend Tai Chi for its health benefits, especially as a stress-reduction tool. This should come as no surprise considering the many ill effects stress has on your body.