You may have seen them congregated in urban parks as a group or standing alone, moving in slow rhythmic patterns that appear very simple, and you may have wondered why they do it. Those who practice tai chi do it for the stress relief and healthful benefits of a daily routine, and these life-giving properties must be working because it’s been around since the 6th century.
A Shao-Lin monk named Bodihdharma is credited with developing six of the moves that are still practiced in modern tai chi. He noticed how poorly-conditioned his fellow monks were due to their sedentary meditative practices and introduced a form of exercise into their daily rituals. This practice was also incorporated into Kung-fu martial arts at the time; indeed “tai chi” is the shortened term for “tai chi chuan,” which means “supreme ultimate fist.”
In the early 1400s, another monk, Chang San-feng, of the Wu-Tang monastery, developed the 13 postures, which form the foundation of modern tai chi. These are the:
- ward off
- roll back
- elbow and
- shoulder strike.
There are five styles of modern tai chi; the most popular in the Western world is the “yang” style, which has 103 postures in the long form and typically takes a mere 20 minutes to do.
The best way to start practicing tai chi is to find an open class, whether at a community center or the YMCA. Many senior centers offer tai chi classes because this exercise method is a gentle, easy way to maintain flexibility, balance and bone density in older individuals through slow, flowing movements. Or you could rent a DVD or refer to online resources to learn the basic movements and practice them before venturing out to a group you’ve been observing for a while.
The great thing about tai chi is that you can do it anywhere you have some standing room, and it doesn’t involve any special equipment. Since it’s become fairly popular as a practice for Westerners, you likely won’t raise any eyebrows if you go out to a park and begin the movements by yourself. You might actually get a few curious onlookers to join you. Tai chi attracts young and old alike, and the American Medical Association, the Arthritis Foundation and the Mayo Clinic all support the practice to relieve stress and optimize health.