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Tai chi means "grand ultimate" and implies "the balance of opposing forces of nature.".

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What Is It?

Tai chi means "grand ultimate" and implies "the balance of opposing forces of nature." The traditional training is intended to teach awareness of one's own balance, both physical and mental.

A technique that integrates body, mind and spirit, tai chi (pronounced tie-chee ) has been practiced for centuries in China . Tai chi means "grand ultimate" and implies "the balance of opposing forces of nature." The traditional training is intended to teach awareness of one's own balance, both physical and mental.

Tai chi began as a martial art, but today it's most frequently practiced for its health benefits and meditative properties. It has become a popular exercise for millions of Chinese and is especially popular among older people.

Tai chi was introduced to the United States in the mid 1960s. Now it's hard to find an exercise center that doesn't offer classes. People all over the world practice tai chi every day.

In tai chi, you perform a series of slow, graceful, controlled body movements while your body remains straight and upright. It includes stepping, shifting weight and rotating. Throughout the session, your breathing becomes deep, yet relaxed. Tai chi movements have been compared to those performed in yoga and ballet.

Stories abound about the origins of tai chi. According to one of the most popular legends, tai chi's motions are based on those of a snake. A martial arts master named Sanfeng dreamed about a battle between a snake and a crane during which he noted the snake's graceful fighting movements. Those movements inspired the development of the noncombative style of tai chi.

Tai chi is a low-impact activity. One key principle (which comes from Taoism) is wu-wei (or the action of nonaction), which refers to going with the flow--not forcing things.

Like acupuncture, tai chi is based on the concept of chi (pronounced chee), the vital life energy that sustains health and calms the mind. Chi courses through your body through specific pathways or meridians. The traditional explanation is that the practice of tai chi improves health by improving the flow of chi, thereby restoring energy balance.

Chi must flow freely for good health; blocked chi can lead to illness or disease. All forms of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) aim to restore energy balance and conserve the body's chi or life vitality. This health system includes the practices of acupuncture, massage, herbal medicine and tai chi's sister healing art, qigong (pronounced chee gong ).

Modern researchers are finding amazing health benefits from tai chi. Regular practice builds strength, enhances muscle tone and circulation and improves balance, flexibility, posture, coordination and range of motion. Some studies also show that tai chi can lower blood pressure and heart rate, as well as ease arthritis pain. It can also help prevent osteoporosis, making it particularly beneficial to women, and reduce the incidence of falls. In addition, tai chi reduces stress, improves concentration and increases energy.

Unlike many types of exercise, tai chi is accessible to people of any age and condition--children, senior citizens and even people who use walkers. It requires no special clothes or equipment, and it can easily be practiced at home. Some modified forms of tai chi can be practiced by individuals with limited mobility. In fact, tai chi is particularly beneficial to the elderly and people with impaired motor skills. Because tai chi emphasizes correct posture and balance, the exercise may be a safer alternative for women with frail bones than other physical activities.

Medical science remains unclear about exactly how tai chi works. While several studies have documented its benefits, none have completely explained why or how it works--at least in the context of Western medicine. But there are theories. While traditional practitioners might attribute the health benefits to the free flow of chi, Western-world scientific research into tai chi is finding other possible explanations for its beneficial effects. For instance:

* Deep breathing promotes relaxation, stress reduction and concentration.

* Focused attention not only relaxes the body and mind, it helps cultivate mental alertness.

* The exercises strengthen muscles and bones (For instance, as a weight-bearing exercise that requires you to support your weight while standing, tai chi is a good preventive measure for osteoporosis.)

* Since most of the movements involve alternating weight-bearing in the legs, tai chi helps cultivate better balance by improving coordination and control of the body during movements.

Anyone can benefit from tai chi--like most low-impact exercises, it can be an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Tai chi isn't a treatment or a cure, but health care professionals often suggest it as a complementary therapy for many conditions.

Few randomized controlled studies (the scientific standard for determining treatment efficacy) have so far been conducted to establish the direct medical benefits of tai chi, however, although some preliminary studies suggest that tai chi can help relieve the symptoms of or prevent certain conditions. Tai chi is considered useful in:

* Reducing the risk of falls in the elderly by improving balance and strength as well as confidence.

* Improving cardiopulmonary function.

* Reducing blood pressure.

* Reducing stress.

* Helping to strengthen the muscles around an arthritic joint, improving flexibility and range of motion while reducing joint pain. Stronger muscles also help protect the joint from soft tissue injuries.

* Easing back pain by improving flexibility.

* Slowing the decline in respiratory function, often a concern among the elderly. Plus, the regular exercise afforded by the practice--comparable to a low-impact aerobic workout--provides cardiorespiratory conditioning.

* Stimulating circulation, improving blood flow to the extremities and its return to the heart.

* Improving health-related quality of life in the elderly.

* Helping speed recovery after a heart attack. Tai chi is sometimes used as an adjunct therapy in cardiac rehabilitation. One reason for its benefit may be its ability to reduce blood pressure and heart rate.

* Helping people with multiple sclerosis increase their physical activity and functioning by enhancing muscle tone, flexibility, coordination and general well-being. Some chapters of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society now offer tai chi classes.

* Helping to slow or prevent bone loss since it's a weight-bearing exercise.

* Reducing the amount of stress hormones in the body.

* Improving glucose control in people with type 2 diabetes.

It's important to remember, however, that although tai chi may help prevent and manage a number of conditions, it isn't a cure for anything. You need to continue seeing your regular health care professional for any underlying health problems. And always check with your health care professional before beginning a new exercise plan.
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Publication:Women's Health Updates
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2010
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