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Tai Chi for Mind and Body

Anita is fascinated by tai chi and has interviewed several instructors and practitioners of this meditative martial art.

The practice of tai chi benefits both the mind and body.

The practice of tai chi benefits both the mind and body.

Next time you’re running through a park sweating and gasping for breath, take a look across the rolling lawns and open spaces—chances are you’ll see a small group of people performing what appears to be martial arts in slow motion.

No, they’re not rehearsing for a Swan Lake role. They’re practising a centuries-old Chinese exercise with stretching and flowing movements designed to strengthen the mind and body.

What Is Tai Chi?

Tai chi is commonly described as a traditional Chinese martial arts form that combines defense training, meditation, and, for more advanced practitioners, medicine. However, the philosophical roots of tai chi tell a more involved historical story that speaks to its influence on how many cultures view the relationship between humans and the natural world.

Origins of Tai Chi

Tai chi grew out of the concept of Taijiquan or Tai Chi Chuan, an ancient form of Chinese cosmology first described some 3,000 years ago in the book “Yi Jing”, or “Book of Changes”.

This early seminal text outlined a number of philosophical beliefs that would become core tenets for not only tai chi practitioners but much of Chinese culture. These beliefs assert the following:

  1. The universe is governed by laws of change, or evolution.
  2. A state of balance, or equilibrium, is always a part of this change.
  3. The evolution of change and balance—as well as the entire universe—springs from cycles of conflict between two binary energies: Yin and Yang.
  4. "Taiji" is the supreme ubiquitous force that creates Yin and Yang, as well as all matter in the cosmos.

The ideas of universal equilibrium in the "Book of Changes" became the bedrock for Confucianism and Taoism, as well as the original source material for the concept of the five fundamental elements—wood, fire, earth, metal and water—comprising the natural world and the human body.

The book also formed the basis for the doctrines of traditional Chinese medicine, putting the chi, or "Qi", in tai chi. Principally, these beliefs stated that:

  • The human body is a small mirror of the universe, and its development and health follow the same laws that govern matter.
  • The opposing energies of Yin and Yang in the human body—and their equilibrium, or lack thereof—determine a person's physical and mental health.
  • The subsequent bodily disorders and disease resulting from energy imbalances, as well as poor diet and hygiene, injury, negative emotions, or environmental toxins, disrupt one's flow of chi (Qi), the vital life force that connects us to the universe.

Tai chi evolved as a subset of a larger practice known as chi kung, which is based on harnessing and balancing your life force (or chi). Chi kung (traditionally spelt as Qi Gong) is practised by tens of millions of people in China every day for its health benefits. In fact, it is considered such a holistic form of healing that it is a focal component of traditional Chinese medicine.

A group of people practicing tai chi in Beijing, August 1988.

A group of people practicing tai chi in Beijing, August 1988.

Differences Between Tai Chi and Chi Kung (Qi Gong)

While chi kung shares similar concepts and movements to the more well-known tai chi, the two practices are not to be confused.

“Chi kung emphasises the flow of chi (energy) through the acupuncture meridians in a less choreographed way than tai chi,” says Allan Kelson, a Foundation Member of the World Academic Society of Medical Qi Gong and international judge of tai chi competitions.

According to Brisbane-based instructor, Julie Vear, there are three essential elements that make up the practice of chi kung: working on the elements of posture; mindful movement and breathing; and increased energy.

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These elements are integrated into various aspects of tai chi as well.

Meditation in Motion

Most modern tai chi practices are derived from the different styles of five traditional schools—Chen, Yang, Wu (Hao), Wu and Sun—and are based on the holistic integration of meditation and movement, which is why it is often referred to as "meditation in motion".

As a martial art, tai chi is principally about defense and responding to external force, such as an attack, by redirecting that force instead of counter-attacking.

The core elements of tai chi training include: taolu (solo hand and weapons routines/forms); neigong and qigong (breathing, movement and awareness exercises and meditation); tuishou (push hands drills) and sanshou (striking techniques).

This chart shows the 24 basic movements of tai chi.

This chart shows the 24 basic movements of tai chi.

DIY Tai Chi Movements for Home or Office

One of the aspects of tai chi that appeals to many young Westerners is the ease with which the practice's flowing meditative movements can be integrated into one's busy life.

Here are two simple exercises that can be done at your desk. If you have pre-existing medical conditions, consult your doctor prior to attempting any unsupervised chi kung or tai chi.

“These sets are great for opening the lungs and getting some blood and Qi flow going through the body,” says Julie. “Remember, keep your movements slow and put emphasis on posture and breathing—keep it in rhythmic harmony with your body movements.”

Opening the Wings

  • Inhale: Float the arms up to shoulder level.
  • Exhale: Open arms out to sides (as if you were expanding around a large beach ball).
  • Inhale: Slowly close arms (palms facing each other) as if compressing a ball.
  • Exhale: When hands are about the size of a basketball in front of chest, lower to sides.
  • Repeat three times.

Gathering the Energy of Heaven and Earth

  • Inhale: Turn palms to face outwards, reach outwards to the sides, then over the head (palms turn down to face the crown).
  • Exhale: Lower hands down centre line of body (fingertips a few centimetres apart).
  • Repeat three times.

Health Benefits of Tai Chi and Chi Kung

Tai chi and chi kung practitioners believe that the flow of chi along the meridians in the body assist many health problems, including stress, high blood pressure, poor posture, menopause, chronic fatigue and injuries such as whiplash or back pain.

Medical Studies

While there are skeptics who challenge the scientific validity of the concept of chi, there is medical research to support the claim of tai chi health benefits. Neuroscientist Shanida Nataraja, who wrote the book The Blissful Brain: Neuroscience and Proof of the Power of Meditation, studied galvanic skin response meters and electroencephalograms and concluded that meditative practices like tai chi increase brain functionality and decrease stress levels.

Jin-Song Han, the founder of the Tai Chi Australia School in Victoria and Tasmania, notes that there is also medical study that suggests tai chi helps improve the well-being, health, and recovery of cancer patients.

“It all comes back to the Chinese belief that allowing Chi to flow through the meridians and internal organs will release blocked Chi in the body," Song says. "It is the blocked Chi that causes illness.”

Testimonials on the Healing Power of Tai Chi

Song also believes tai chi helps slow the ageing process, something to which he can personally testify. “I’m 46 but feel like I’m in my mid-twenties. As for looking younger, well, you can judge my photo on the website to see how old I actually appear!”

One of Julie’s students is a retired academic who was left unable to speak, read, write or think when debilitated by a stroke in 1998. Jeff Pittam discovered that chi kung helped him to concentrate on things other than his stroke, helped him relax, increased his motivation and aided his concentration and focus through the complexity of the forms.

“It also helps my balance,” he says. “Even before the stroke my balance wasn’t wonderful, but now it is so much better.”

But it’s not just the injured and infirm who benefit. Queenslander Geoff Osborn is a 33-year-old IT professional with a passion for rock climbing, swimming, martial arts, hockey and swimming. He turned to chi kung to achieve more endurance and balance in his life—both at work and in sport.

“I can recognise differences between movements I think I'm doing, and what I'm actually doing. Mostly we move from habit, and the Qi Gong helps me focus on the now-ness of movement,” he says.

The more relaxed approach to work and sport means Geoff is able to enjoy his activities for longer periods of time, without getting too wound up in day-to-day stuff.

“I found I got the most sense of health, wholeness and calmness from Qi Gong rather than sweating it out in a gym,” he says.

This is a concept that Julie reinforces in her teachings. “Western fitness principles tend to focus on sweat, pain and muscle definition,” she says. “But this style of exercise is usually very linear and tends to view the body as a machine.”

Though people might think they’re getting a good workout on the treadmill while watching television, Julie contends, they’re actually disconnecting mind from body.

“Qi Gong practice emphasises mind/body integration and movements which massage and energise the internal organs as well as joints, muscle and bone health,” says Julie. “The brain loves patterns of movement and many Qi Gong forms help to balance the two hemispheres which enriches the neuro-muscular system.”

This, according to Julie, is vital to our well-being: “The movements lead the Qi through the meridian system to every cell in the body making Qi Gong a powerful self-healing method,” she adds.

“It turns the flight/fight instinct into a deep state of relaxation, which in turn promotes the flow of Qi. Everything should be about balance—flexibility and strength; relaxation and activity; yin and yang. Working with the body and breath leads us to present moment awareness and a kinaesthetic awareness of ourselves. And thus it gives us a sense of balance and harmony in our world.”

Rise in Popularity

Tai chi and chi kung have long been popular in China, but in recent decades, the practice has exploded in popularity elsewhere in the world, including the United States, particularly among Millennials.

“Ten years ago I would have only one or two people in some classes,” says Julie. “But now I teach mornings, evenings, weekends, in a studio or a park, in corporate offices or in hospital beds. The beauty of Qi Gong is that anyone can do it anywhere and still achieve profound health benefits.”

Tai chi has also become popular as a competitive sport, so much so that it was pitched to be included as a new Olympic Sport at the 2008 Beijing Games. Unfortunately for its fans, it wasn't accepted, but hundreds of tai chi masters did get to exhibit their skills at the opening ceremony.

When you consider that tai chi needs no sports equipment, uniform, special grounds, or even a particularly good memory or fitness level, it's no wonder the ancient and elegant art form is an attractive proposition for many people.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Snowkestrel on December 04, 2019:

Love this Hub, and hope to try the Exercises, wish that the poster was Downloadable

myownworld from uk on February 18, 2010:

Great hub! well presented and great information! Am definitely going to try some of these exercises... thanks for sharing..!

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