“The ancient Chinese martial art of Tai Chi Chuan is the perfect callisthenic for today’s seniors. The relaxed and unhurried movements help alleviate nervous and muscular tension. Tai Chi Chuan lubricates joints and promotes automatic body alignment for better control of balance, helping to prevent the instability that can lead to falls.”
Our ability to walk and stand and move in all the ways that we do relies heavily on our sense of balance. For some time now research has been finding that tai chi can improve postural stability, especially as we age. Harvard University is particularly focused on such research, much of which is discussed in The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi (Wayne P, 2013).
For something that we take for granted for so much of our lives, the statistics can be a wake-up call.
Muscle strength decreases 20 to 40% between the ages of 20 and 70.
Ankle flexibility, which is critical for postural control, declines by 50% in women and 35% in men between the ages of 55 and 85.
Spinal flexibility is often the first thing to go, especially spinal extension (the ability to stand up straight). We have 50% less spinal extension after age 70 then we had in our 20s.
We don’t have to be “old” to see this progression. It actually starts in relatively early years of life.
As research findings show, it’s a no-brainer that tai chi improves balance. Tai chi practice does so by improving the conditions of aging reported above: improvements in muscle strength, particularly through changes in muscle use and control, joint flexibility in terms of range of motion and speed, spinal flexibility and extension, as well as alignment. Greater overall postural control is possible.
Since the day we stand and begin to walk, we rely on balance as we journey through life. I could tell in my own practice as I have aged that I started out in a particular state of balance and through practice progressed to where I am now. I am my own personal research project. I have seen the progression and can mark its passage in changes in my body and in the way I feel. I think every tai chi practitioner can say something similar if they practice long enough.
Research also suggests that taking a 12-week course of two 90-minute tai chi classes per week can produce noticeable changes in your balance. I would say a number of other changes would be observable, as well. A sense of overall well-being, for example, might result; or a more relaxed feeling when in motion.
I would add that if you practice regularly for two years you would see rather amazing growth in your ability not only at doing tai chi form, for example, but at having cultivated a movement strategy for overcoming conditions, such as chronic pain. I have myself as a case study, but I know many who have stories to tell about overcoming ailments simply by sticking with their tai chi practice.
These positive strides from learning tai chi relate to balance resulting from addressing the functions of four systems in the body, as described by Dr. Wayne: musculoskeletal, visual, sensory, and cognitive. He dissects these into their components and by doing so makes it clearly evident how tai chi improves balance.
Tai chi is a practice of utilizing all of these systems with attention to how they are working in our minds and bodies. We become more adept at how we walk, stand, see, feel, breathe, and even hear merely by focusing on them in movement. Overtime we cultivate expertise through practice similarly to what we do as we grow up, but with a renewed emphasis.
Tai chi movements truly are the movements of life itself. We can transfer the specialized movements of tai chi to daily activities. Just the act of memorizing something new has significant benefits for brain function. And just the simple act of taking a walk can be a practice of tai chi, in addition to a healthy exercise. It’s nothing short of amazing for so many practitioners. I can say this because I’ve seen it and I’ve heard them say so.
We may not be able to completely eradicate the symptoms of aging, but maybe we could slow the decrease in muscle strength, or slow the lack of flexibility in the ankles and other joints. For me, it’s not a maybe, it’s a certainty. The catch is that you have to start and keep it up. The longer you wait the more catching up you have to do—but having less time in which to do it.
The good thing is it’s really never too late to start, especially if you have a knowledgeable and supportive teacher and a friendly group of fellow practitioners with which to practice.
We all have our own unique challenges to tackle in the quest to age more gracefully and with good health. This is something to keep in mind when beginning to learn tai chi movement. Hopefully, you will find a teacher who can help you through your particular situation.
The key is to see and feel progress which comes only after effort and time. Each us takes the time we need and makes the effort that we can and that sets your pace. I’m always confident that just about everyone can make progress and see the difference tai chi can make in their balance and other functions.
Paul Tim Richard shares perspectives on internal martial arts and the art of movement based on two decades of study. He has co-produced MastersFromChina.com instructional videos since 2002 and teaches fundamental principles of taijiquan and qigong in Colorado, USA.
One thing I like about learning and doing tai chi is that it is something that we haven’t done before. At least what we don’t recognize as something we’ve done before. Maybe we have, but don’t realize it as something familiar, … maybe we do.
Nevertheless, whatever way you may see it, tai chi is taking new pathways into the mind and body and discovering new ways of thinking and being. In fact, learning tai chi is more like discovering. You discover a process of movement that produces new perceptions about what you’re doing which, in the case of tai chi, has movement at its core.
The question I have asked myself in the past is: “What is it that you’re moving when you’re “doing tai chi”? The most obvious answer is moving the body, of course; but is that all there is that is actually moving? What about the mind? Is not the mind moving as well? Are we not shifting our attention, our perception to become aware of something about movement that we didn’t notice before?
Next time you “do” tai chi, maybe you will enjoy thinking about this little aspect of movement than may not have occurred to you before.
Doing taijiquan and its complement, qigong, can add great benefits to the lifestyles of younger practitioners, as well as reducing the effects of growing older. Why younger people don’t get into tai chi is asked often and many reasons have been discussed. One is that “tai chi is for old people,” as discussed in this video clip.
For me, there are many more reasons for younger people to do tai chi than not to do it. For one, I’m convinced that as preventative practices, tai chi and qigong both can help reduce healthcare costs related to aging (which comes sooner these days than we think!). We just don’t expect problems while we’re young and our bodies are still new and healthy. Instead of waiting until we’re sick or breaking down we could do something about it.
But often, you could have greater effectiveness by accepting that you’re going to have those problems sooner or later.
Tai chi and qigong are also complementary activities to many exercises you choose to do for staying shape, which often is a lifestyle choice. We look good when we feel good. These can be enhanced by practicing even just a few principles of tai chi. You don’t even have to do it as a martial art, either.
As a tai chi and qigong teacher, I find more and people in their twenties, even teens, interested in trying tai chi. As a multi-level exercise for mind, energy, and body practice, no other exercise does all that tai chi can. It helps to heal injuries, maintain healthy systems functions, such as nervous and lymph systems and blood circulation. It helps to detoxify and cleanse.
It trains memorization skills, too; like a crossword puzzle for the whole body, not just the brain. Whether you’re in school, on a job, or whatever, that’s a good thing.
Even if you’re in the grips of aging, you might find that a steady, long-term tai chi practice will have positive effects on the flexibility of your brain function.
Neuroscientists talk about “neuroplasticity” to refer to the brain’s ability to disrupt our tendency towards inertia and be more easily changeable. As Catherine Kerr, a Harvard Medical School instructor, says, “For anyone who practices tai chi regularly brain plasticity arising from repeated training may be relevant, since we know that brain connections are ‘sculpted’ by daily experience and practice.” Kerr is investigating brain dynamics related to tai chi and mindfulness meditation at Harvard Medical School.
In addition to tapping into the brain’s capacity, it’s a bio-mechanical stretching method that can maintain and improve elasticity of bones, joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles so we may live longer and better.
All of these reasons to start tai chi sooner than later apply to every stage of life, but if you start sooner, you might just be happy you did. Starting tai chi is only a matter of joining a class and making a habit of practicing regularly over time. This is a relatively simple key to success.
If you’re in your twenties and already practicing, feel free to comment about your experience. Maybe we can spread a little enthusiasm for beginning younger in life to others who may be pondering the possibility of giving it a try.
Taiji is a meditative practice. We often think that means turning the attention inward. True. It could be a focus on breathing, or silencing the mind of thoughts. You can do that in taiji, but as a moving meditation you also have a task of focusing on the outside of the self. Or more accurately, focusing the self on what is happening outside; for example, to ground one’s self. This is a process of finding a surer footing; to sink in gravity, yet float on water. To move in various directions, shapes and patterns with greater ease and balance.
It’s also a process of sensing your surroundings and how your body is situated in space. You could say that grounding yourself is more than feeling the soles of your feet on the Earth and sensing movement through them. It’s also sensing movement in the near environment. The far environment, too—the sky, the distant view. Your yin and yang can expand and fill in the space while also condensing and rooting in earth and sky.
That’s the focus. So how do you do it? Certainly by feeling with the body. Also by listening to the body with the mind—with inherent powers of observation and honing one’s awareness in on the inner and outer workings of the whole being. How is a move done? What makes the move occur in the first place? Bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, muscles, even organs. How does the body change directions? How much force is generated or is any generated at all? What’s moving, what is not? Tension is released in degrees, so what does that feel like? Can you describe it? Give it language?
Parts of us are asleep. Both the mind and body are asleep. Inertia is at work. Tai chi helps to wake them up. But what do you wake up first? How do you wake? To wake the body, move in ways different from your usual way. Wake the mind by looking at the world in different ways, from different angles and with different perspectives. Moving and seeing differently creates new opportunities for discovery and understanding. The whole of doing tai chi is a question of how to move in general, and how to move each part of the body, specifically.
I don’t really know about what other tai chi teachers do, but I show learners loosening exercises that they can do to achieve a number of results. One result is to improve concentration on repetitive, rhythmic motion for building skill in biomechanical efficiency, balance and even power. Usually, I encompass these kinds of exercises in “single-basic” exercises. On-going students are familiar with these, but beginners stumble over various aspects of practicing them. One of them is speed.
Speed is not always good in loosening exercise. Slowing down allows you to get connected more readily. Staying connected while moving is easier to accomplish if you stop assuming—moving faster while cycling through them more rapidly—is better. Like it’s aerobics or some cardio exercise.
This tai chi is not, and it may be foolish to compare one to the other. They’re different approaches to movement. Do cardio if you want, but don’t think something is missing in tai chi because it’s not going fast enough or hard enough. You won’t get what tai chi has to offer that is as valuable as anything you can get from some kind of aerobic tai chi.
One of those things you get from tai chi is powerful whole-body connectivity. The mental concentration it takes to achieve it leads to a boon in better mind-body connection and better health and longevity
Applying breath and movement from tai chi practice is not just more stuff to add to your daily activities. It is the foundational thing that you do before everything else. Every breath, like every moment, underlies every movement. To get from here to there, you use awareness of breath, body position and intention. These are the paths by which you travel from here to there, from this step to that, from this position to that position. These are all integrated into the whole being of which breath and movement are part. We are not just objects. We are objects that move, feel, think, perceive. Let these be the vehicle by which you live.