The art of slow – the amazing benefits of tai chi

You’ve probably seen people going through the sequence of movements in your local park.

The ancient practice of tai chi was originally developed in China as a form of martial arts.

As we move towards sports and activities that offer mental as well as physical benefits in today’s world, the gentle but powerful exercise is now winning over a whole new legion of fans.

Supermodel Gisele Bundchen and her footballer husband, Tom Brady, are among three million devotees in the US, with Gisele describing it as “moving meditation”.

American rock legend Lou Reed was another. His widow reports that when he died in 2013, the singer and songwriter was performing tai chi at home surrounded by the trees in his garden.

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Tai chi benefits: It’s all about the qi flow

“The movements in tai chi reflect the natural motions of the body and, because they require a high degree of concentration, they help calm and still the mind,” says Master Han Jin Song, chief Instructor at Tai Chi Australia in Melbourne.

“The aim is to support a healthy balance of yin and yang – the opposing forces of shadow and light within the body – to help the flow of qi, your life force, or vital energy.

“While it looks slow, it is deceptive. Each movement uses almost every muscle so your arms, legs, torso, are all engaged. And all while you remain connected to your breath.

“By achieving that balance within your body, you can help release emotional tension and increase awareness.”

Science likes tai chi too

There are a multitude of medical studies documenting the health benefits of tai chi.

The Mayo Clinic in the US says there is evidence tai chi not only helps reduce stress and anxiety but can enhance sleep quality and the immune system, as well as lower cholesterol and blood pressure and improve joint pain and the symptoms of congestive heart failure.

A study out of Texas Tech University found the practice can boost bone health and muscle strength.

In Australia, researchers from Sydney University found tai chi “significantly improved” muscle strength, exercise capacity and quality of life for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“It’s definitely becoming more popular among young people looking for relief from the stresses of everyday life,” says Master Han Jin Song.

“But the great thing is that anyone can practice tai chi, regardless of their age or fitness level.”

tai chi

Great for young and old

Melbourne architect and yoga teacher Stephanie Kitingan, 30, says she’s noticed a positive change in her mental health since getting involved in the sport.

“I think it’s to do with each movement being slow and intentional, even placing your fingers does something to your mental state,” she says.

“It’s become part of my life and really informs my yoga practice as well.

“There’s also something about being part of the community, it’s such a breadth of ages, I love it.”

Victorian grandmother Bernadette Wilkins agrees.

The 81-year-old took up tai chi 20 years ago after suffering a heart attack and says she’s been a fan ever since.

“It’s so inspiring to see other people with health problems get involved and to see the improvements,” she smiles.

“You never stop learning and it’s something that just encompasses you.

“I find I can just open my door and go into the garden and do a few moves and feel on top of the world. It’s very much part of my life now.”

As an ancient master put it…

There’s an old Chinese saying, “Whoever practices tai chi regularly will in time gain the suppleness of a child, the strength of a lion, and the peace of mind of a sage”.

That’s enough to convince us!

Written by Liz McGrath.