As a form of physical exercise performed regularly, Tai Chi addresses the key components of fitness: muscle strength, flexibility, and balance by engaging every major muscle and joint group in the body. Even bone strength can be improved. Good posture is essential in the practice of Tai Chi not only for the sequence of movements but also for the flow of Qi throughout the body. Although body parts move independently of one another, the body itself moves as one unit.
Muscles, large and small, are relaxed, not tensed, and gently stretched. Joints are never fully bent, locked or extended and connective tissue is not stretched. It begins with rooting the feet into the ground by sinking one’s body weight. Staying connected to the ground with a low center of gravity is crucial to one’s balance and must not be lost by rising up when transferring body weight. Knees bend slightly but never further than the toes. Otherwise, uneven weight distribution will put stress on the knees, causing pain and eventual trauma. The only time legs are straightened is during kicks, but again not locked. The spine is kept straight with the back and core muscles remaining relaxed yet engaged, thus strengthened through the expansion and contraction of deep breathing. The diaphragm must be allowed to expand. All Tai Chi movements are directed by waist rotation. Therefore, the upper and lower body are always connected. Movements are expressed by the limbs as the upper body is worked utilizing voluntary, unsupported, circular arm movements. The chest should not be inflated but hollowed or it can put strain on the muscles around the neck and create tightness in the shoulder muscles. Shoulders always remain relaxed and down, not raised, or they will inhibit mobility in the upper extremities. Elbows should always stay below or at shoulder level. If not, tension in the shoulders will arise and the back muscles may over-stretch. The underside of the arms should never rest against or wing-out from the torso: there should always be a small space in the armpit. The hands are concave with tendons flexed but relaxed and fingers do not touch each other.
Because no two people are in the same physical condition, Tai Chi can be adapted or modified based on the individual’s needs. It can be performed at a slower or faster pace, with deeper, longer stances or shorter stances, standing or sitting, for those confined to a wheelchair or recovering from surgery. Regardless of how it is practiced, Tai Chi will have a positive effect on range of motion.
As we age, we lose proprioception: the ability to sense the position of one’s body in space. Tai Chi has been shown to train this ability by creating awareness. This awareness is beneficial to everyone but especially to an aging population. A correlation has been made amongst seniors who practice Tai Chi regularly, 2-3 times per week, where the incidence of falls is reduced as a result of increased gait stability, coordination, improved balance and improved reaction time to recover one’s balance. As muscle strength is developed, there is better joint stability. Tai Chi would be an excellent program to implement in any retirement home since it requires no equipment, can be performed virtually anywhere, is easily modified by the practitioner and encourages social interaction when practiced as a group.
In the six years where Tai Chi has become a staple in my life, I have noticed many changes in myself. At the onset of my training, I had no real concept of balance nor was it a consideration. My overall leg strength has improved greatly. Whether standing, sitting or performing mundane tasks, I am more conscious of my posture. Not to mention how Tai Chi has improved many aspects of my Karate training, for example, weight shifting. Since I have reached a stage where osteoporosis is a very real concern, I am glad that I have taken on an exercise that can aid in its prevention and treatment.