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- If you’re intrigued by the benefits of meditation, but find it hard to sit still, it might be time to look into a meditative movement such as tai chi.
- A martial form that originated in China, tai chi can not only help with stress management through mindful movement, but research also shows that tai chi can benefit everything from blood sugar to body mass index.
- Starting a tai chi practice can be as easy as following a few simple sequences right in the comfort of your own home.
Meditation can be a tricky practice to cultivate, especially if you have trouble sitting still. If you’re looking for a more active way to quiet your mind and release tension, tai chi can help you find that balance in more ways than one. These mindful movements not only instill a sense of peace and stillness that you can return to in moments of stress, but they can also impact everything from sleep quality to blood pressure.
The Vast Health Benefits of Tai Chi
Tai chi originated in China as a martial art and has come to be known as a low-impact, mind-body exercise that can help with maintaining flexibility, strength, and balance. The idea is to use the gentle, yet focused movements of tai chi to unblock and encourage the flow of qi, or an energy force believed to flow throughout the body. Tai chi is also said to promote the concept of yin and yang, which represent opposing elements of the universe that need to be kept in harmony.
Much like meditation, tai chi requires you to focus on your breath, but you’re also paying close attention to how your breath aligns with your movements, which might make it easier for you to focus on the present moment compared to the complete stillness associated with most other forms of meditation.
As for its health benefits, “studies have shown that tai chi may improve mood and self-efficacy along with physical strength and endurance,” says One Drop coach, Lindsay Vettleson, a registered dietitian/nutritionist (RDN), certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES), and certified personal trainer (CPT). “Consistent practice of tai chi has also been associated with reduced waist circumference, improved body mass index (BMI), reduced blood pressure, and lower fasting glucose levels.”
While many studies on the health benefits of tai chi note that the effects aren’t necessarily unique to just tai chi, those who practice the martial art form are often quite passionate about and committed to their practice. G. Scott Graham, a certified health coach and tai chi instructor at a senior living center in Vermont, says his tai chi class continued to meet outdoors after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, even on days when it was raining, snowing, or frigidly cold.
“Although people initially came to my classes for the exercise, they stayed and continued to attend in some pretty bad weather because of the mental health benefits they got while many people experienced COVID-induced emotional exhaustion,” shares Graham. “People would show up at the park we met at in Bradford, Vermont with snow shovels in hand to clear out a space to practice. In 24 months, we only missed one day because the wind chill was 20 degrees below zero.”
So, if you find that you have trouble sticking with a workout routine, perhaps it’s time to see what keeps people coming back to tai chi.
Welcoming a Tai Chi Practice Into Your Routine
Perhaps the best part of starting a tai chi practice is that you can do it anywhere at any time—no equipment needed.
Plus, “tai chi is self-paced and not competitive,” giving you space to focus on that powerful mind-body connection, says Dr. Jenelle Kim, a doctor of Chinese medicine who’s been practicing tai chi for over 30 years.
Tai chi can also be a great source of exercise for people with weak bones or joints or those who may otherwise be at risk for falling or injuring themselves while exercising. “Participating in a low-impact activity, such as tai chi, puts less stress on your joints and muscles,” explains Vettleson.
Even if you already have a workout routine you like, adds Vettleson, tai chi can help you cool down after a sweat session. “Tai chi can improve flexibility, which helps to reduce stiffness after intense exercises like running, heavy weightlifting, or HIIT,” she says.
Regardless of when or how you choose to practice tai chi, be sure to talk to your doctor about any possible effects this exercise might have on your health before you get started. For instance, if you live with diabetes and use insulin to manage your condition, workouts of any kind can cause sudden drops in your blood sugar. It’s a good idea to check your blood sugar before exercising, monitor your levels over the course of your workout, and keep fast-acting sugar handy in case of low blood sugar.
Once you’re ready to dive into your practice, you’ll find that tai chi can be so much more than just a form of exercise that you check off on your to-do list. “Think of tai chi as a habit to help you cultivate self-awareness, insight, and resilience,” says tai chi master, Leia Cohen.
Dr. Kim recommends starting with this simple “qi ball” sequence:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with a soft bend in your knees.
- Begin focusing on your breath, feeling your stomach expand as you breathe in and contract as you breathe out.
- As you breathe in, lift your arms and bring them into a circle in front of you, creating a “qi ball” in between your hands. Position your arms as if you’re literally holding a ball.
- Keeping your body relaxed, roll the “qi ball” around in front of your abdomen. Picture the qi building in between your hands, traveling throughout your body, as you maintain your breathing.
- Continue breathing, and switch directions, rolling your “qi ball” the opposite way.
- Roll your “qi ball” at least three times in each direction, then settle your qi back into your abdomen. Breathe in, and breathe out.
Ready for more? Try these tai chi forms from master Cohen:
Fly Like a Bird
Hug the Tree
Be a Wave
This article has been clinically reviewed by Lisa Graham, RN, BSN, CDCES, clinical health coach and director of clinical operations at One Drop, and Alexa Stelzer, RDN, LD, CDCES, clinical health coach at One Drop.