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Tai Chi Health Benefits

Tai chi is a profound martial art and exercise system that has become universally popular because tai chi health benefits are so wide-ranging. What’s more ongoing research is constantly showing new areas where tai chi is beneficial. One year it is in the news for treating anxiety and the next year for helping hugely with fibromyalgia. So what makes it so beneficial for such a wide range of physical and mental health conditions?

Click Here for a list of links to medical articles regarding the wide ranging health benefits of tai chi.

Modern medicine has come a long way. We can now treat more illnesses and save more lives than ever before. However, where modern medicine fails is with the chronic diseases and illnesses that are largely caused by our lifestyle.

A chronic illness means it’s been going on a long time and if thousands of people suffer from something for a long time then it means that modern medicine doesn’t know how to cure it. Sure, they can medicate the symptoms and monitor the progression, but they can’t make you better.

I strongly believe, and my belief is being increasingly backed up by evidence, that the human body is capable of healing itself of any illness, disease or injury. But, and this is a big but, only if it is kept in a state of balance.

Rebalancing the body

Modern life keeps us out of balance in so many ways. Our diets are too high in carbs and too low in nutrients, our minds are kept in a constant state of anxiety and our bodies held in a constant state of tension. It is this constant state of tension that I believe is the single biggest contributor to ill health and the main area that tai chi is uniquely qualified to help with.

The human body evolved to stand on two legs. The legs should be strong to carry us around and the upper body should be loose enough to enable free movement of the arms for carrying loads, gathering food, fighting and so on. This is how we evolved over millions of years but today most people are chronically unbalanced and top heavy. They are overly tense in the upper body and very weak in the lower body. Tai chi is unparalleled in its ability to reverse this.

Modern life has led to us spending 80-90% or more of our time sitting on chairs. The legs become very weak and the upper body chronically tight, particularly in the front of the body. We hold onto the tension in those muscles 24 hours a day and over time it just keeps building up. This chronic tightness drains us of energy leading to fatigue and sleeplessness. It also constantly pulls on our joints and puts pressure on our internal organs often leading to chronic pain and other health ailments.

A healthy muscle should, in theory be able to go from 0% tense (completely relaxed) to 100% tense and then back to 0% again. Many animals can do this. If you’ve ever picked up a cat it feels like just skin and bone – the muscles are so soft you can barely feel them. Yet it can suddenly tense those muscles enough to leap at least four times its own height.

It isn’t possible to test just how tense our muscles are but most people are probably holding a large proportion of their muscles at around 40 – 70% all the time – 24 hours a day. They also aren’t used to tensing their muscles to fully 100% so their real range of muscle power is around 40-90% possibly a lot less.

Stronger legs

What tai chi does is to strengthen the legs through teaching people to use them properly. Gradually the stances lower as the legs strengthen and relax (some muscles strengthen and others that oppose them relax). Only when the legs are strong can the upper body learn to trust that the legs really can hold their weight and gradually let go of its tension. Slowly the body comes back into a state of balance with strong legs and a relaxed upper body.

No other sport or exercise system can do this as they don’t teach the same methods of aligning the skeleton with gravity and relaxing down as tai chi does. Although the legs become stronger in other activities there is no real lessening of the tension in the upper body or learning how to connect the upper and lower body properly.

In fact, many other activities increase the upper body tension and can weaken the physical structure further making it more prone to injury.

Age plays an important factor here. Babies are born without tension. You can pick a baby’s foot up and touch its nose with it and it will giggle and think it’s funny. When they learn to walk their legs become strong. They can squat easily and naturally to play. Their bodies are beautifully balanced and largely free of tension which is partly why they have so much energy.

As they get older they are forced to spend more and more of their time sitting down. School is terrible for this. Within a few short years of school most children can’t touch their toes any more with their legs straight. As they get older their bodies become even more tense, they have less energy and the will to stand up and move around becomes weaker and weaker.

Don’t wait until you’re old

The older you are when you start tai chi the more difficult and longer it will take to regain some semblance of mobility and balance. Which is ironic as most people don’t start it until they are quite elderly. However, its calm focus and gentle movements are good for the elderly and may be the only kind of exercise they can do. Unfortunately, they can only really see and realise less than 10% of the potential that tai chi could have if they had started when they were much younger.

Tai chi is the only activity in the world that actively seeks to reduce tension by changing the ways you habitually hold onto it. Many methods can release tension – massage, spas, walking, even alcohol but they are all short term as your tension is being held all the time in the habitual ways you hold and move your body. Tai chi is even more beneficial than yoga. Yoga is great at working with your body and incorporates mindfulness and breathing skills but it does little to change the ways you habitually move.

The full breath

Breathing is the most fundamental thing we do in our lives. We cannot last for more than a few minutes without it. Like everything else we do the way we breathe has become a habit. Yet for most people their breathing habits are poor and leave them low on energy, full of tension and at the mercy of their emotional states.

I often tell my students that the single most important thing they can do to improve their overall health is to learn to breathe better. I could write several books on the importance of breathing alone but for now remember these points:

  • Breathe slower
  • Breathe softer
  • Always breathe through your nose
  • Breathe as deep into your belly as possible

Slowing down

Modern life is lived at an increasingly frenetic pace. We constantly struggle to keep pace in our jobs, keep up with our families and the Joneses and keep track of what’s going on in the world in general and our lives in particular. We all have full diaries and full heads and this leads to more tension as we struggle to keep up with it. Tension in the body is usually mirrored by anxiety in the mind.

The slow movements of tai chi are the antidote. To perform tai chi properly your mind must be in your body, in your movements. The reason for this is that most of the movements we do in life are habitual. The way we walk, climb stairs, pick up a drink etc are hard wired into our minds. But that doesn’t mean they are the best way to do those movements. When we move habitually we are also habitually holding onto our tension. The only way we can learn to let go of that tension is to move in a new way, a slower way that can teach us how to move more efficiently without so much tension.

In tai chi you are or should be constantly focused on relaxing down through every move you make. In order to keep your mind on the relaxed connection between the different parts of your body and not go back into habitual ways of moving you must move slowly. This keeps your mind focused on every inch of every movement. It is only possible to learn to move in a connected way if you are moving slowly. The minute you speed up then different parts of your body move at different speeds. Your mind simply cannot maintain the connections that fast without a lot of training.

Your mind and body constantly mirror each other so when you slow your movements down your mind slows down as well. As your mind slows down it no longer needs to circle around negative thought patterns and becomes fully involved in the rebuilding of a strong and healthy body.


Most people are very uncoordinated. Their arms and legs are doing their own thing unconnected to each other or the torso, the breath is weak and uncontrolled, and their mind is somewhere else entirely. This makes them feel weak and powerless because they aren’t able to bring all the parts of themselves together into a cohesive whole.

They lack any real sense of self. They don’t really know who they are or what is their place in life. They feel like a cork bobbing up and down on a big ocean at the mercy of the slightest wind or current. These winds and current come in the shape of peer pressure or media pressure to conform to a certain way of looking or thinking. They reach out for these in the hope that they can become a part of something bigger and will then fit in.

Tai chi brings every part of you to work together. Your arms, legs, torso, breathing, mind, energy, spirit etc. When everything comes together you feel more connected and more powerful. You are no longer a cork bobbing on the ocean but a buoy firmly rooted to the sea bed and able to withstand the winds and currents and so maintain your identity and place in the world.

Tai chi teaches us to move the arms, legs, torso and head precisely together, powered by a strong breath and guided by a focused mind. This makes us far better at coordinating our body and maintaining a balanced and relaxed frame. More importantly it also gives you a great and unshakeable sense of self so that the decisions you make in life come from who you really are and not from pressure from how others would like you to be.

The eventual aim is to be able to put everything you are into everything you do. This will make you more effective in every area of your life. You will gain so much more presence, you will be less distracted, everything you do will have a purpose and every move you make will have a graceful power that will draw the eyes of others. Only then can you achieve your full potential in life.

A set of unchanging principles

Modern life is constantly changing and the speed of change is getting faster and faster. What is true today is often shown to be false tomorrow. Some people can cope well with change but most people fear it. One thing that good tai chi does is make you more able to adapt to change.

When you learn to use tai chi as a martial art you learn that pressure comes at you and you must constantly adapt to that pressure while staying relaxed and calm of mind. This is a very important skill in modern life. You learn that although the situation is in constant flux as long as you stick to a set of unchanging principles you will be safe. These principles become the bedrock on which your movements and indeed your life can stand.

It is a little-realised truth that in order to relax you need to have something solid to relax down onto. You cannot relax in your job if you are scared that you may be made redundant any day. You cannot relax in your relationship if you fear your partner is having an affair. It is much harder to relax on a very soft mattress than it is on a supporting one. For those that practice standing qigong you know that you must stand on a firm surface to learn to relax your body down effectively. It isn’t really possible to stand on something soft as you can’t relax down.

The principles of tai chi follow the laws of physics so will never change. Crazes and bandwagons come and go but tai chi will always benefit you in a myriad of ways. Once you understand the principles of tai chi you can apply them in so many other areas of life. They will change the way you drive, the way you sleep, the way you work, the way you communicate with your loved ones and so on. Life will become smoother and easier and it should enable you to live a healthy life fairly free of the chronic illnesses that beset our modern age.

The tai chi health benefits are manifest and wondrous

Development of internal energy

Tai chi is known for its use in the development of the internal energy known as qi (chi) in China. This is a more controversial topic as even the existence of qi is contested by many.

Qi cannot be seen but it can be felt and when it is even partially developed it cannot be mistaken for anything else. Qi is just like any other energy – think of wind energy or electrical energy. It flows from an area of high pressure to low pressure (or positive to negative). The reasons why most people cannot feel it yet is fourfold.

Firstly because they carry a lot of tension in their body and this acts as resistance to the energy.
Secondly because their breathing isn’t full enough to increase their energy levels.
Thirdly because their bodies are disconnected so the energy cannot flow easily through different parts of the body.
Lastly because they aren’t used to feeling it so don’t know what it should feel like.

The feelings are very subtle to start with but soon become much more pronounced as your nerves get used to the feelings. Tai chi relaxes your muscles, aligns the skeleton and improves the breathing so the energy becomes fuller and can flow more easily through your body. The results are a feeling of fullness and a relaxed yet energised state of being.

In summary

All of the above tai chi health benefits show that the art of tai chi is perhaps the ultimate exercise to gain and maintain optimum health throughout your life. Its unique combination of posture improvement, efficiency of movement, breath cultivation and focus of mind leave you feeling connected with yourself and the people and energies around you.

You might be interested in …

  • Work on your posture and breathing while you walk
  • Walk freely with more balance and less tension
  • Become more aware of yourself and your surroundings
  • Make every walk a richer and more enjoyable experience

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tai chi walking tips