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Tai chi might conjure up visions of elderly people in a park slowly moving their hands in soft waves, but there’s actually much more to it than that. The practice is having a moment, as searches are up 189 percent on Pinterest. And, with good reason. We tried a class and can tell you it’s uniquely calming and challenging, and it left us feeling relaxed, limber, and grounded. We wanted to learn more about what makes tai chi such a valuable movement practice, and what specifically it offers. So, we turned to two expert tai chi instructors who have over 60 years of combined experience to fill us in.
Read on for everything you need to know to get started with the transcendent discipline of tai chi.
Meet the Expert
- Lenny Burlingame has been teaching tai chi classes for over 35 years, holds an Advanced Teacher Certification, and is the owner of Whip City Tai Chi & Evolving Traditions. He also offers online classes.
The History of Tai Chi
Tai chi is an internal Chinese martial art. It’s described as “internal” because it promotes relaxation and slowness, and it’s much less likely to cause an injury thsn the combat styles. Like Qigong (which dates back as far as 200 AD), it cultivates the qi (also spelled chi)—the internal energy that flows through the body—by combining movement and breathing.
You may hear the term taiji discussed—this refers to the opposing, yet complementary, forces of yin and yang. Tai chi is said to help bring these forces in your body and mind into harmony. In the Western world, tai chi is typically practiced for its health benefits. But, unlike in most other forms of exercise, while you do gain strength, the focus is on remaining lithe and flexible. Tai chi is based on the dynamic movement of water, so there’s no sense of rigidity.
What Is a Tai Chi Class Like?
There are various styles of tai chi, such as Yang, Chen, and Wu, but the same core principles apply to the different styles. “The methods taught in any class are all awareness-based exercises that wake you up to start to release tensions,” explains Burlingame. “First in the body, then the mind, then the emotions, and so on.” There is often a gentler warm-up period to get the mind and body ready. Then, the instruction and practice portion of the class consists of a series of various slow, controlled, movements paired with conscious breathing, mental focus, and body awareness. The class may end with some Qigong or breathwork. “You should feel looser and freer in your body, mind, and emotions when done with a session,” notes Burlingame.
Tai chi classes may be held indoors or outdoors, and class size can vary depending on where you practice. Burlingame notes that one rather unique thing about the practice is that all abilities and levels of experience can enjoy the same class together. Some classes also involve working with a partner. “The key to success is that each person must be encouraged to go at their own pace and set their own goals,” he says. With that said, there are often classes specifically designed for beginners, and Burlingame recommends these if you’re just starting out because you’ll get additional instruction and guidance.
The Importance of Finding a Good Class
Feras emphasizes the importance of finding a good class led by a knowledgeable instructor. While there are many books and videos available online (which are valuable tools to use to improve later on), for newbies, it’s best to learn in an environment with others and have the proper foundation in place.
He explains it’s also harder to break a habit if you learn something incorrectly on your own. If you’re new to the world of tai chi (as we were), he suggests observing a class first. There should be an attitude that embraces learning and camaraderie. Though it’s critical to be instructed correctly, you don’t want the atmosphere to be too serious. Feras explains the Chinese talk about tai chi giving you an “easy heart”—a care-free attitude and the ability to not take life too seriously. Feras emphasizes that the partner practice and social aspect of classes can help you keep this levity and not get “in your own head.”
Our experts stress the importance of an experienced teacher. “Just as there are different styles of tai chi, there are also different styles of teachers depending on their path of training, studying, and teaching skills,” explains Burlingame. Give a few different classes a try if you don’t jive with your first instructor or experience.
What to Wear to a Tai Chi Class
One of the benefits of tai chi is that no special equipment or accessories are necessary to participate. “Comfortable, loose clothes and footwear are needed for class, although barefoot is okay, too,” shares Burlingame. If you do wear shoes, opt for ones that have a fairly smooth and flexible sole so that there isn’t too much friction between your feet and the floor. You want to be able to move fluidly. Even though you won’t be huffing and puffing like you might in a spin class, it’s still important to bring a water bottle and stay hydrated. And, although tai chi doesn’t expend as many calories as more vigorous forms of exercise, it’s still important to have a healthy snack with protein after class.
Especially as a new student, bring a notebook and pen to class so you have a place to jot down lessons, tips, and reminders for your tai chi practice.
How Long Does It Take to Learn?
After attending a class for a few months, you may have enough knowledge and information to go away and perfect your own practice. Feras explains that many people come to classes together in small groups, ask questions, and want to learn—then often get together themselves to train. It’s said that learning tai chi is like learning a musical instrument: You can play along with the band, or if you want to be good at solos, you can practice as much as you would like to.
The Benefits of Tai Chi Workouts
The benefits of tai chi span the gamut from the physical to mental, emotional to social. Although it’s a physical practice, tai chi is also great for the mind—you’re calm and grounded, but not to the disengaged level you may be in meditation. In tai chi, you’re simultaneously present and relaxed. The practice aims to teach you to be aware of your body and how to use it more efficiently.
It can improve your fitness and physical health.
While tai chi won’t have you building muscular strength the way weight lifting does, or challenging your heart and lungs like a rip-roaring HIIT class, it can improve aspects of your fitness and health. “It can improve balance, increase flexibility and strength, and [encourage] proper structural alignments,” explains Burlingame.
It can reduce anxiety and improve your mood.
“Modern times have created more and more anxiety for many reasons and have contributed to getting our minds even more overly stimulated because we are always thinking, moving, and doing,” explains Burlingame. “This leads us down a dangerous path of mood swings, unrest, anxiety, and so on.” Burlingame says that tai chi can improve mood and reduce anxiety because it strengthens your mind-body connection and hones your ability to settle your restless, stressed mind. That way, you can better tune out negative thoughts, self-doubt, and worries that don’t serve you.
“In tai chi, you can use the body as an anchor for your mind to settle on to—tame the mind to the body is what I call it,” says Burlingame. “When you put your mind on your body and move slowly, you can pay attention to it.” He notes that while this is simple in theory, it’s not as easy in practice. “But after a few times, you can see that it calms the mind, it calms the breath, and so on,” says Burlingame. “At first, you might notice that your mind will want to do some things other than what you want it to do, but eventually you tame it.”
It can improve your focus.
Burlingame notes that the same principles underlying the ability of tai chi to reduce anxiety by developing the mind-body connection apply to focus and attention. By bringing your awareness to your body, and practicing controlling your wandering thoughts, tai chi improves your ability to tune out certain mental and physical stimuli and focus on what you intend to. Burlingame says that tai chi movements give the mind something active to focus on, acting as a stepping stone or training wheels to help you learn to focus and control your thoughts and attention. “Next time you are in bed and the mind is racing, put your mind on any body part and hold your mind there. You will see the mind still wanting to wonder, but you will be able to focus somewhat and hold your thought,” he says, “Now in comparison, try to put your mind on your mind and try hold it. The mind isn’t stable enough until it’s tamed by the body.” Tai chi can facilitate that taming process.
It can improve your sleep.
Research has found that daily tai chi can improve sleep quality. “The mind is like a monkey jumping from tree to tree (from thought to thought),” says Burlingame. “We especially notice this when sleeping at night because everything is still except our minds.” In other words, your active mind is often to blame when you’re up counting sheep. Tai chi provides a training ground for you to practice controlling your thoughts and quieting some of the mental chatter. This can give your brain the needed peace and space to be calm and quiet enough for sleep.
It’s social and fun.
Rather than breeding an atmosphere of competition and comparison, tai chi classes foster a sense of community and support. Social connections and deep friendships often form. The art also encourages a practice of fun and enjoyment.
It’s safe and healthy for anyone.
“The slow-moving, low-impact, rhythmic body movements of the tai chi form allows us to tune into our bodies and is safe for all ages and fitness levels,” says Burlingame. In fact, it’s a great form of movement for older adults because it can improve balance and body awareness, which can help prevent falls. There are even seated movements, so it’s accessible if you have mobility issues or injuries. It’s also an approachable activity if you’re new to fitness because it gets you moving your body without making your heart rate skyrocket. “The art is big and can fill many appetites, from healers to fighters, seniors for health, martial artists, and everyone and anyone,” says Burlingame.
Why Is Tai Chi Trending?
We wondered why searches for “tai chi” have increased recently. Feras agrees that it may be a direct response to the busyness of our modern lives. “With so much noise around, I think people are searching for some calmness, and tai chi is both physically and mentally grounding.” Perhaps people are beginning to turn away from the clickbait, notification-happy gratification of social media and the digital world. There’s something to be said for slowing down and working on developing a skill with practice and intention.
“There’s been a huge surge in popularity in yoga over the past 10 years,” Feras explains. “However, with yoga, you usually work alone, and although you may socialize with people after, there isn't any partner work—tai chi is more interactive and social.” Feras also cites that the inclusivity of tai chi due to its relative physical gentleness could also be appealing to people. “In tai chi, you’re always working in a middle range,” he says. “You’re not particularly aiming to go into a headstand or handstand, like in yoga, for example.”
To us, the appeal seems clear: tai chi has benefits for all of us. Calmness, we’re ready for you.
Si, Y., Wang, C., Yin, H., Zheng, J., Guo, Y., Xu, G., & Ma, Y. (2020). Tai Chi Chuan for Subjective Sleep Quality: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : eCAM, 2020, 4710527.