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What Is T’ai Chi – History & Health Benefits

Every year it seems that countless new “get in shape” gimmicks rear up from the daytime talk show and infomercial void. Whether it’s a new diet paired with a book or a pill, or an exercise routine that requires a unique piece of gear, the fitness and diet industry are relentless in their promises of perfection.

While many “new” exercise routines disappear as quickly as they arrive, others show results because they have survived the test of time. Yoga, for example, was born in India 5,000 years ago, and is now more popular than ever. The treasured gymnastics and calisthenic routines of Greece are staples of today’s workout classes, and the kung fu martial arts of the Far East are popular with kids, adults, and moviegoers alike.

Born out of those ancient martial arts is a practice called t’ai chi. T’ai chi isn’t technically considered an ancient practice, but it certainly isn’t spanking new either. It’s been around for hundreds of years and has developed into a comprehensive workout system for the human body and mind.

What Is T’ai Chi?

Because of its slow pace, t’ai chi is considered to be a low impact exercise. But make no mistake – it’s a challenging workout for any age or fitness level. In its most popular form, t’ai chi is a unique series of standing poses which focus on the human body’s natural posture. These poses are woven together into sets, or “forms,” often described as “a moving meditation.” A set incorporates as few as a handful of postures for beginners, to more than 100 for more advanced workouts, maintaining a slow pace throughout to optimize the practitioner’s control of breath and form.

The two fundamental principles of t’ai chi revolve around focus and relaxation. Focus is channeled from mind to body, and relaxation from body to mind. These two principles are seen as interdependent throughout ancient Chinese philosophy, exemplified by the symbol of the yin and yang.


The full name of t’ai chi is “t’ai chi ch’uan,” which can be translated to “supreme ultimate fist,” or “boundless fist.” It’s rooted in Chinese martial arts, and although it has been in existence in one form or another for more than 400 years, it wasn’t until the mid 1800s that various aspects of the art merged and t’ai chi ch’uan was given its formal name.

The Taoist teacher Chang Sanfeng (born 1247 AD) is widely credited with developing t’ai chi ch’uan during his time at the legendary Shaolin Buddhist Monastery. The fundamental poses and movements are believed to be a marriage between Chán Buddhist Shaolin martial arts and Chang’s personal observation and interpretation of the movements of animals in their natural setting.

Tai Chi Health Benefits

Health Benefits of T’ai Chi

Because of the low-impact nature of t’ai chi, it’s not quite as imposing a form of exercise as the dreaded gym circuit. With its incorporation of controlled breathing and relaxed movements, it can also positively influence your mental health and sense of well-being.

T’ai chi has also been shown to benefit these specific health issues:

1. ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
A 2001 study published in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies found that a population of 13 adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who participated in t’ai chi classes twice a week for five weeks “displayed less anxiety, improved conduct, less daydreaming behavior, less inappropriate emotion, and less hyperactivity” during the study.

2. Elderly Balance
When it comes to the elderly, independence is a huge issue – as is the risk of a debilitating fall. T’ai chi may help improve “balance in older people, as well as [have] some meditative effects for improving psychological health,” according to a 2011 study in the British Journal of Medicine. Considering its low-impact nature, t’ai chi can be an excellent way to stay in shape as you age.

3. Arthritis
A study conducted in the General Clinical Research Center (GCRC) at Tufts-NEMC measured two populations of Rheumatoid Arthritic (RA) outpatients to determine if t’ai chi could improve their movement and quality of life. One population was taken through a full hour of t’ai chi exercises, while the other group was given 40 minutes of nutrition and medical information and 20 minutes of full body stretching.

After two sessions a week for 12 weeks, the t’ai chi group showed noticeable and measurable improvements in areas of joint swelling and tenderness, as well as in a global assessment of the disease’s activity. The study also included a separate assessment of quality of life in which the t’ai chi group scored significantly higher.

4. Heart Disease and Hypertension
The leading cause of death in the United States is coronary heart disease (CHD), and the likelihood of getting it is significantly amplified if you have hypertension, or high blood pressure. A study conducted at National Taiwan University found that individuals previously at high risk for heart disease showed “lowered blood pressure, and improved levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, insulin, and C-reactive protein” after a year’s practice of t’ai chi. In a control group where t’ai chi was not practiced, no improvement was found.

Other studies have also found that the practice of t’ai chi significantly lowers blood pressure and decreases anxiety.

T’ai Chi and Your Brain

In a 2010 Harvard Magazine article, Catherine Kerr, a Harvard Medical School instructor and researcher into brain dynamics, said that although her 15-year t’ai chi practice is not a magical cure, it puts her in a better mood and makes her legs stronger and her mind more alert and focused. Kerr also points out that some studies have shown that “meditation, motor learning, and intentional focus” – all attributes of t’ai chi – can even result in changes in brain structure.

Final Word

An added benefit to t’ai chi is that unlike other popular get-in-shape techniques, you can practice it on your own without the need to attend a class or pay for expensive gear or gym memberships. T’ai chi may not be the panacea to your exercise needs and health concerns, but in addition to the hype, it has the research to back up its claims. No matter how old or fit you are, and particularly if high-impact exercises aren’t an option, t’ai chi is worth considering.

Do you practice t’ai chi? Have you experienced any of these or other health benefits?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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