Tai chi, also called tai chi chuan, was developed as a martial art in 13th-century China. It blends flowing movements and relaxation with deep breathing, and it's practiced worldwide as a health-promoting form of physical activity.
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And though you may associate the practice with older individuals, it has proven health benefits — such as stress reduction, improved posture, balance, increased muscle strength in the legs and general mobility — for people of all ages. It also accessible to people of all ability levels, including wheelchair users.
There are several different types of tai chi, depending on the way the body holds the postures and the speed of the movement. For the most part, though, the movements are quite gentle and many are done in a position similar to a semi-squat.
If you're hoping to start practicing the martial art, it's best to study the ancient art under the guidance of an experienced teacher who can walk you though the basic tai chi moves.
Benefits of Tai Chi
Unlike high-intensity exercise, the ancient art involves slow, low-impact movements, but it still has a host of fitness-related perks. In fact, tai chi improves your muscle strength, flexibility, balance and aerobic conditioning, per Harvard Health Publishing.
And even though it won't leave you breathless like other forms of cardio training, tai chi improves your heart health. A February 2015 meta-analysis published in PLOS ONE found that tai chi enhanced cardiorespiratory function in healthy individuals.
In addition, tai chi can help you fight the battle of the bulge. An October 2015 study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that people who practiced tai chi experienced moderate weight loss and saw a significant reduction in their waist circumference and fasting blood glucose.
If it's back pain that ails you, tai chi's gentle movements may help you manage those symptoms too. That's according to a March 2020 study in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, which concluded that tai chi could improve chronic low back pain in older Americans.
What's more, regular tai chi practice may even lower your mortality risk, according to a September 2013 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
And the mind-body exercise can also help your brain age gracefully. A December 2013 meta-analysis in the Journal of Sport and Health Science concluded tai chi training might improve global cognitive and memory functions in older adults.
Tai Chi Steps to Warm Up
There are a number of warm-up exercises you can do before beginning your practice. Warming up can get your focus, intent and breathing on track before you get into your basic tai chi moves. These warm-ups include:
- Head rolls: gently circle your head in one direction, then the other while breathing deeply
- Simple stretch: bending down to your toes and slowly coming back up with your hands on your hips
- Shoulder rolls: arm circles with your arms stretched out to the sides
- Picking fruit: standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and reaching upward
- Knee circles: standing with feet together, knees slightly bent and hands on knees as you circle your knees around together
- Hip rolls: standing with feet shoulder-width apart, hands on hips, and circling your hips as if you were hula hooping
Then Try These Tai Chi Moves for Beginners
Move 1: Warrior & Scholar
- Put your feet together and relax your hands at your sides.
- Take a breath in while bending your knees and sinking down, left hand flat and right hand balled up in a fist.
- Continuing to inhale, cover your right fist with your left hand and lift up.
- Come to a straight-legged stance.
- Exhale, release and sink back down.
Move 2: Brush the Knee
- Begin this move in a T-stance.
- Lift one hand up, palm pacing front.
- The opposite hand is in front of the body, palm facing downward.
- As you bring one foot forward, twist your body at the waist and push your raised hand forward, while putting the opposite hand down.
- To finish, circle your arms back to starting position.
- Exhale on the push with the top hand and inhale on the circle back.
Move 3: Part the Horse Mane
- Bring both hands in one on top of the other with a space in the middle, palms facing each other, as if you're carrying a ball.
- Shift your weight to whichever foot is on the same side as the top hand. So if your right hand is on top, shift your weight to your right foot.
- Bring the opposite leg in front and as you shift your weight to the front leg, move the bottom hand forward as if you're throwing a Frisbee.
- The other hand should come back and down to "rest on a large dog's head."
Additional reporting by Jaime Osnato
- NHS: A Guide to Tai Chi
- PLoS ONE :The Effect of Tai Chi Training on Cardiorespiratory Fitness in Healthy Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.
- Harvard Health Publishing: “The health benefits of tai chi.”
- Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: “Effects of Tai Chi and Walking Exercises on Weight Loss, Metabolic Syndrome Parameters, and Bone Mineral Density: A Cluster Randomized Controlled Trial.”
- American Journal of Epidemiology: “Associations of Tai Chi, Walking, and Jogging With Mortality in Chinese Men.”
- The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine: “T'ai Chi for Chronic Low Back Pain in Older Adults: A Feasibility Trial.”
- Journal of Sport and Health Science: “The effects of Tai Chi exercise on cognitive function in older adults: A meta-analysis.”
- NHS: A Guide To Tai Chi
- YouTube: Tai Chi - Form 2 - Parting Wild Horse's Mane - Right & Left
- Complete Tai Chi: Home Study Manual