As anyone who's ever sweat out their stress on a long run or in a kickboxing class will tell you, exercise is an effective way to nix nervous energy and create a sense of calmness. But workouts don't need to be intense (or long) to soothe a busy mind.
One of the best — albeit underrated — physical activities for reducing stress (and improving your overall health) is tai chi.
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What Is Tai Chi?
When you hear "tai chi," what comes to mind? Most likely, "older people doing slow movements together in a park," says Mackenzie Hawkins, a tai chi instructor at Princeton University and the Wuwei Princeton Academy. But this ancient Chinese system of movement isn't just for your grandma.
Tai chi is a philosophy, a low-impact exercise and a martial art all in one. That's right, a martial art. Many people are stunned to learn that tai chi's delicate, graceful movements can be applied as a form or self-defense, Hawkins says.
"In the Tai Chi Classics, there's a saying that one should be so sensitive that you can be aware of and respond to the slightest brush of a feather — for then there is no force that can defeat you," she says. That's the kind of mind and body awareness you cultivate through tai chi.
Try These Qigong Postures for Stress Relief
"Learning traditional tai chi forms is quite an investment of dedication and time, but there are ways to get many of the same benefits using simple patterns of movement," Hawkins says.
Starting with less complicated postures and repetitive moves like qigong, which can be mastered more easily, is your best bet, agrees Greg Woodson, a senior faculty member of the Tai Chi Foundation.
If you're serious about starting a tai chi practice, Hawkins and Woodson agree that you should study the ancient art under the guidance of an experienced teacher. In the meantime, these introductory qigong postures — courtesy of Woodson and the Tai Chi Foundation — will help you feel balanced, relaxed and stress-free. You can watch a video of these movements here.
This qigong sequence is a great way to get your body moving in the morning. And, when done in reverse order before bedtime, these moves may also help prepare you for a restful slumber.
Move 1: Embracing the Tao
- Begin by standing with your feet parallel, shoulder-width apart.
- Bend your knees and feel a cord of energy from the heavens to the top of your head holding you straight.
- Relax the spine down. Bring your arms up into a generous circle, hands lightly crossing at the center, right hand on the outside across from your heart. Your wrists should be touching very lightly.
- Keep the circle big and round, shoulders and arms relaxed, as though hugging a tree.
- If your arms grow tired, you can release them down for a moment and then bring them back into the circle.
- Tuck your chin slightly in and down to create a stretch at the back of the neck. Keep your eyes half-closed and focused on the horizon.
- Lightly touch the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth.
- Inhale deeply and slowly through the nose, filling your lungs. Feel the cool air enter.
- Exhale slowly, feeling the warm air leave.
- Notice your diaphragm draw down, pulling in breath.
- If you become distracted, gently draw your mind back to your center of energy and your breath.
Move 2: Yin Yang Breath
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and parallel.
- Imagine that your head is hanging on a thread from the heavens and relax your arms at your sides.
- Breathe in slowly through the nose, eyes half closed, tongue on the roof of your mouth.
- As your lungs fill with air, let your arms float straight up in front of you to shoulder height as though guided by invisible strings at the wrist, fingers hanging down.
- At the very end of the inhale, let your fingertips extend outward.
- As you exhale, let your elbows grow heavy and sink down, drawing the wrists in front of your shoulders.
- Let your hands curve around joint by joint to the tip of the fingers as though going over a waterfall, dropping them all the way down as though they're resting on a table in front of your thighs. Then let the fingers relax down.
Move 3: Constant Bear and Looking Owl
- Begin with feet shoulder-width apart and parallel, standing tall with knees bent.
- Imagine a string connecting your head to the heavens and relax your body down.
- Start by taking an imaginary ball into your hands, right hand on top, left hand on the bottom.
- Shift all your weight and turn in the direction of your top (right) arm. Then with a fluid motion, bring your right arm down and your left arm up, as if you were rotating the ball upside down.
- Now with the left hand on top, knees bent, shift all your weight smoothly across to your other (left) side.
- Again, in a fluid motion, bring your left arm down and your right arm up, rotating the ball backside up.
- Continue this pattern. Once you develop a rhythm, you can inhale to one side and exhale to the other, letting the breath create the movement.
How Does Tai Chi Help With Stress?
In tai chi, often referred to as meditation in motion, "we release unnecessary tension from the body and also quiet the noise of our minds," Hawkins says, adding that tai chi's physical component may be helpful for those who struggle with seated meditation. And its slow, low-intensity moves might also be more manageable for others who find yoga too physically demanding.
Like meditation, tai chi fosters mindfulness and grounds you in the present moment. "You observe the flow of emotions happening in your body and notice how your worries about the future are also happening here and now in your mind," Hawkins says.
"As with other mindfulness-based practices, this allows us to break the pattern of stress — instead of getting caught up on focusing only on potential threats, as can happen when we're stressed, we can feel more open, calm and grounded," she says.
And there's scientific evidence to support this. A June 2017 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that 12 weeks of tai chi practice significantly reduced stress levels in healthy adults and offered an effective alternative to other types of more rigorous exercise.
This stress-soothing effect may be due in part to tai chi's breath work, which elicits the relaxation response and counteracts the autonomic nervous system's stress response, according to an article in the winter 2018 issue of Focus.
Indeed, the mindfulness and relaxation created in tai chi can carry over into your everyday life. Whether it's noticing the tension in your shoulders as you work at your desk or taking a quick moment to ground yourself by feeling the support of the chair beneath you.
"This can help kickstart a positive feedback cycle since, as we relax our body, we also relax our mind," Hawkins says.