T'ai Chi

Sick of step aerobics? Tired of tennis, but still want to stay in shape? If you're looking for something to shake up your workout routine, try t'ai chi. T'ai chi (pronounced: tie chee) is great for improving flexibility and strengthening your legs, abs, and arms. Get ready to "Part the Horse's Mane," and give t'ai chi a try!

What Is T'ai Chi?

When you think about martial arts, karate and judo may come to mind. T'ai chi, sometimes called t'ai chi chuan, is also an ancient Chinese martial art form that was developed to enhance both physical and emotional well-being.

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It's been said that t'ai chi is a combination of moving yoga and meditation. A person performs t'ai chi by practicing breathing exercises and a series of slow, graceful, flowing postures (also called poses) simultaneously. The postures consist of movements that are said to improve body awareness and enhance strength and coordination. Many people who practice t'ai chi say that they feel more peaceful and relaxed after a workout.

T'ai chi was developed in ancient China as early as 225 AD. The ancient Chinese believed that the body was filled with energy, or chi, but chi could become blocked, causing illness and disease. They believed that a person could help improve the flow of chi throughout the body and improve health by practicing t'ai chi exercises.

The many different styles of t'ai chi include:

  • Chen style
  • Hao (or Wu Shi) style
  • Hu Lei style
  • Sun style
  • Yang style
  • Zhao Bao style

The different types vary in intensity and focus. For example, Sun style is known for its fast footwork. The low-impact movements of Hao style can be practiced by people who are elderly or have special needs. In general, though, practicing t'ai chi improves strength, flexibility, and respiratory function.

You have many choices when it comes to choosing a t'ai chi workout. Many fitness centers and YMCAs offer t'ai chi classes, and many t'ai chi instructors also offer private classes. You may also want to try a t'ai chi video — there are several excellent videos just for beginners. Instructional websites, CD-ROMs, and books are also available to help you learn more about t'ai chi.

Before you start your first t'ai chi workout, you should dress comfortably so you can move and stretch easily. Shorts or tights and a T-shirt or tank top are great choices. Because t'ai chi is a martial art, some people who practice it wear a martial arts training uniform. T'ai chi is usually practiced barefoot or in comfortable socks and sneakers.

During a t'ai chi class, you'll participate in forms. Each form is a series of movements (also called poses) performed in a specific order. The poses that make up the forms sometimes have visually descriptive names, such as "White Crane Spreads Its Wings" and "Grasp Sparrow's Tail."

Poses to Try

Here are a few poses that you might encounter if you take a t'ai chi class or watch a t'ai chi video:

  • Hands Strum the Lute: Slightly bend your left knee and place your weight on your left foot. Move your right foot and place it behind your left foot. Shift your weight back to your right foot and extend the left foot forward with the toes up. At the same time, slightly turn your body to the right, raise your left hand until it is level with your nose, and move your right hand horizontally to the inside of your left elbow. Direct your eyes toward the left hand.
  • Needle at the Bottom of the Sea: Shift your weight to your left foot and move your right foot, placing your toes behind your left foot and shifting your full weight to the right foot. Extend your left foot forward. Turn your body to the right, and circle your right arm to the right while moving your left hand to the front of your face. Look at the floor in front of your feet.
  • Closing Form: With your feet at hips' distance apart, extend both arms forward while turning your palms down. Lower both of your arms slowly to the sides of your hips and look straight forward. Shift your weight to the right foot and move your left foot toward the right foot.

Before You Begin

Before you begin any type of exercise program, it's always a good idea to talk to your doctor, especially if you have a health problem. But unlike many other sports, t'ai chi is based on continuous, flowing, low-impact movements, so it's a good workout choice for just about anyone.

Is your schedule jam-packed with school, work, and social activities? Here are a few tips for fitting in fitness and staying motivated:

  • Try a little at a time. If you don't have time to go through an entire form in your regular t'ai chi routine, try breaking up your workout into 10- or 15-minute chunks. During a long study session, reward yourself every hour with a few minutes of t'ai chi.
  • Go slow. Keep your expectations reasonable. Don't expect to be able to do all the moves perfectly right away. Masters of t'ai chi work on the forms continuously for years to perfect them. As you become more proficient, remember: The postures of t'ai chi are meant to be done slowly for best results.
  • Do what works for you. Some people have more success working out in the morning before the day's activities sidetrack them; others find that a nighttime workout helps them unwind before hitting the sack. Experiment with working out at different times of the day and find the time that fits your schedule and energy level best.
  • Get in a group. If you find that you aren't motivated to work out by yourself, attend a few t'ai chi classes and get social. An added benefit of taking the class: The teacher can help you with your form and give you tips to make your workout more effective and enjoyable.
  • Keep boredom at bay. Many people who work out regularly say that preventing boredom is the key to consistent workouts. If you've been doing t'ai chi every day and are feeling a little blah, mix it up with walking or a yoga video.

There's one caution about starting a t'ai chi routine, though: Once you start, you might not be able to stop!

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: November 2011

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