Health Benefits of Tai Chi - Why 250 Million People in the World Practice Tai Chi Today?
By Dr. Ming Wu
Jim is a patient of mine who has been practicing Tai Chi for 3 years. “I feel that Tai Chi helps you find out who you are, what you need, to find your core values.” said Jim, “Once I practiced Tai Chi regularly and once I began taking the herbal medicine, I did notice an improvement in the way I felt and instead of my cancer continuing to come back it has now been longer and it has not yet reappeared. So many people keep telling me that I look better, that my color is better and I know that I have more energy and that I feel better.”
Jim have had multiple recurrent, metastatic, stage IV cancer for over eight years, before he began to regularly learn and practice Tai Chi. He had seven surgeries to remove the tumors, but each time, the cancer came back. “All of the surgeries have left me with chronic digestive problems and significant fatigue, with the recovery being worse and longer each time.” said Jim, “With Herbal Medicine and Tai Chi I have not experienced any side effects, I feel and do better, I have experienced the benefits to be cumulative and I find the problems they are treating continue to improve. Practicing Tai Chi an hour every day will yield great benefits and the benefits are cumulative (continue to increase) as long as you keep practicing.”
What is Tai Chi?
It is commonly believed that the inventor of Tai Chi is a Taoist priest from the 13th century named Zhang San Feng. However, some researchers argued that Tai Chi was practiced prior to the earliest written references. What is known is that the term has been used in connection with philosophy, religion, literature, art, medicine, and even astronomy. As a branch of martial arts, Tai Chi has been practiced for at least 700 years.
The term Tai Chi in marshal art is shortened from "Tai Chi Quan"(Tai Chi Fist), a series of slow movements that flows continuously from one to another. Incorporating the Chinese concepts of yin and yang (opposing and inter-dependent forces within the body) and Qi (life force or vital energy), the practice of Tai Chi is meant to support a healthy balance of yin and yang and so aiding the flow of Qi. Many believe the original set of 13 exercises was developed to imitate the movements of animals; the emphasis was placed on meditation and internal force in contrast to external force.
Tai Chi in China and Later in the World
Despite Tai Chi’s long history, the practice had been limited in a small region in Henan province until the 19th century. Master Luchan Yang (1799 – 1872) and his son Master Banhou Yang (1837-1892) started to teach Tai Chi in Beijing, more as an excellent form of exercise, than purely as marshal art, which helped Tai Chi gain its popularity in China.
Over the years, many Tai Chi masters have contributed to the further development of Tai Chi and the sophistication of Tai Chi theory. Many Tai Chi styles and forms were developed, among which, some well-known ones include Chen style, Yang style, Wu style, Hao style, and Sun style.
Since the 1950s, with the contributions of Tai Chi masters in Hong Kong and Taiwan, such as Shouzhong Yang, Yingjie Dong, and Manqing Zheng, Tai Chi started to spread worldwide. These days, there are practitioners teaching Tai Chi in almost every corner of the world, and Tai Chi is practiced by nearly 250 million people worldwide. Based on data obtained from National Health Interview Survey, an estimated 2.5 million individuals practice Tai Chi in the U.S. alone.
The Health Benefits of Tai Chi
Tai Chi, called by some people as “moving meditation”, combines slow, deliberate movements, meditation, and breathing exercises. The routines were not designed to burn calories or raise your heart rate.
Instead, Tai Chi has been found to have many benefits, such as:
Help blood circulation
Improve balance, and alignment
Help restore energy
Build muscle strength in the whole body
Improve mental health, and psychosocial well-being
Promote serenity and inner peace
Supporting Evidence from Research Studies
Tai Chi now has a significant body of scientific literature supporting its beneficial health claims. Furthermore, such benefits have been reported across a range of populations, including healthy children, young and elderly adults, and individuals suffering conditions from Parkinson's, cardiovascular disease, and AIDS.
Tai Chi decreases risk of falls in older person
One study conducted by the Oregon Research Institute sought to evaluate the efficacy of a six-month Tai Chi intervention for decreasing the number as well as the risk of falls in older persons.
A sample of 256 physically inactive, community-dwelling adults aged 70 to 92 were recruited through a patient database in Portland, Ore. for a randomized controlled trial. Participants participated in either a three-times-per-week Tai Chi group or a stretching control group for six months. The primary outcome measure was the number of falls; the secondary outcome measures included functional balance, physical performance, and fear of falling, assessed at baseline, three months, six months (intervention termination), and at a six-month follow-up.
At the end of the six-month intervention, fewer falls (38 as opposed to 73), lower proportions of fallers (28 percent compared with 46 percent), and fewer injurious falls (seven percent versus 18 percent) were observed in the Tai Chi group compared to the stretching control group. The risk for multiple falls in the Tai Chi group was 55 percent lower than that of the stretching control group. Compared, then, with the stretching control participants, the elderly individuals who practiced Tai Chi showed significant improvement in all measures of functional balance, physical performance, and reduced fear of falling.
Significantly, all of these gains were maintained at the follow-up point six months later.
Tai Chi helps with tension-type headaches
More than 45 million Americans suffer from chronic headaches, according to the National Headache Foundation, with losses of billions of dollars each year in the form of absenteeism as well as billions more spent on over-the-counter medications. Tension-type headaches represent just over three-quarters of all headaches; they occur either chronically or in single episodes and are most often reported to be the result of stress, anxiety, fatigue, or anger. Symptoms include soreness and pain, a tightening band-like sensation around the head, pressure sensations, and contracted head and neck muscles.
A study conducted with the help of UCLA Center for East West Medicine examined the effect of Tai Chi on the impact of headaches in adults who suffer from tension-type headaches. Forty-seven participants were randomly assigned to either a 15-week program of Tai Chi instruction or a waitlist control group. Assessments of their headaches as well as their health-related quality of life (HRQOL) were obtained when the study began as well as at five, 10, and 15 weeks.
Statistically significant improvements in both the number and pain of headaches as well as HRQOL (energy/fatigue, social functioning, emotional well-being, and mental health) were scored by those participants selected to perform Tai Chi. Although this small study is not conclusive in and of itself, it does amount another brick in the wall of evidences that Tai Chi confers many health benefits on practitioners.
Tai Chi helps relieve chronic pain
Several small studies suggest that Tai Chi can have a significant impact on the chronic pain experienced with specific conditions, such as osteoarthritis of the knee and fibromyalgia.
A 2013 meta-analysis of seven different trials seemed to demonstrate that a 12-week course of Tai Chi could improve the stiffness, and pain symptoms of knee osteoarthritis and improve physical function.
A 2010 trial showed Tai Chi to be better than wellness education and stretching for regularizing sleep patterns and treating symptoms of pain, depression, and fatigue in people with fibromyalgia.
A 2012 study of 101 people also suggested that combining Tai Chi with mindfulness training could improve both fibromyalgia symptoms and functional difficulties.
Tai Chi improves cognitive function
A systematic review and meta-analysis from 2014 involved 2,553 adults, aged 60 years and over, who did not have cognitive impairments. The results were significant in showing beneficial effects on cognitive function. The studies also demonstrated small but significant benefits for people who were cognitively impaired.
A review from 2015 of nine studies involving 632 healthy adults showed the potential benefits of Tai Chi for cognitive ability. It advocated further large-scale studies to confirm the potential benefits of Tai Chi.
Who can Benefit from Practicing Tai Chi?
One of the best features of Tai Chi is that it can be adapted to fit just about any fitness level, from the most fit to people confined to wheelchairs or recovering from surgery.
The gentle flowing low-impact movements are easy on your joints if you have arthritis. You can even do them seated if needed.
Tai Chi can also be a great way to gently get you back into moving around if you have diabetes and have been inactive. Depending on your fitness level, your doctor will likely also suggest some cardio and more moderate activity to help manage your diabetes.
Although Tai Chi are excellent fitness activities for beginners and people with health conditions, elite athletes also benefit from doing the slow movements, because everyone needs better balance and muscle control.
When you are pregnant, you can gain many benefits from meditative movements like Tai Chi. They can increase your flexibility and improve your balance.
If you have medical issues or an injury or have recently had surgery, check with your doctor before increasing your activity.
Wu Way Tai Chi
I encourage my patients to practice Tai Chi, because I myself have been a practitioner for over 40 years, and I have experienced the great benefits of Tai Chi personally. I have also been teaching Tai Chi for almost 30 years, and have witnessed countlessly students and patients improve their health and mind with Tai Chi practice.
The Wu Way Tai Chi I teach incorporated my understanding of Chinese medicine and Taoism philosophy. "Yellow Emperor's Classic of Medicine "(黃帝內經) is the most important book of Chinese medicine and a very important book of Taoist practice. In its first chapter, “The universal truth"(上古天真論篇), it addresses the dynamic of health and illness with a question:
“Remain detached and empty-minded, and genuine Qi will flow easily. Connecting with the spirit within, how could illness arise?” (恬淡虛無，真氣從之,精神內守，病安從來？)
Tian(恬) means to enjoy the tea with all your senses, to taste the tea mindfully with your tongue. That is the way of living - enjoy every second of your life mindfully, live in the now. It is the philosophy of Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism. In chapter sixteen of Tao Te Ching, it says “Attain the ultimate emptiness, hold on to the truest tranquility(至虚极，守静笃)." Why are modern people so impetuous and anxious? It is not because we are under more stress than our ancestors, but we are incapable of keeping our minds in a tranquil state. If we live in the realm of Tian every day, we will feel no pressure at all! At this level, illness will still come, but will leave quickly and quietly, as Tao Te Ching said, “Do not interfere the way of nature, everything will take care of itself so there is nothing to be undone.” Let everything flow naturally under heaven.
One would ask, “Sure, that sounds great. But how can I get there - the calm and tranquil state of mind? What is the doorway to inner peace?”
The answer for you could be Tai Chi! Give it a try!
Tai Chi Teaching Videos
In this set of 5 videos, Dr. Ming Wu personally demonstrates the 24 movements of Yang style Tai Chi Quan. You can learn Tai Chi with Dr. Wu from the comfort of your home — on your own time, and your own schedule.