A guide to tai chi

All you need to know about tai chi, including the health benefits, the different styles of tai chi and getting started.

What is tai chi?

Tai chi, also called tai chi chuan, combines deep breathing and relaxation with slow and gentle movements. Originally developed as a martial art in 13th-century China, tai chi is today practised around the world as a health-promoting exercise.

What are the health benefits of tai chi?

While there's scope for more rigorous studies on tai chi's health benefits, studies have shown that tai chi can help people aged 65 and over to reduce stress, improve balance and general mobility, and increase muscle strength in the legs.

Can tai chi help prevent having falls?

Some research suggests tai chi can reduce the risk of falls among older adults who are at increased risk. However, more research is needed.

Can tai chi help with arthritis?

There is some evidence that tai chi can improve mobility in the ankle, hip and knee in people with rheumatoid arthritis (RH). However, it is still not known if tai chi can reduce pain in people with RH or improve their quality of life.

Is tai chi good for treating osteoporosis?

Studies have looked into the potential benefits of tai chi for people with osteoporosis, but there is currently no convincing evidence that tai chi can prevent or treat osteoporosis.

Am I too old for tai chi?

No, tai chi is commonly performed as a low-impact form of exercise, which means it won’t put much pressure on your bones and joints and most people should be able to do it.

Is tai chi suitable for me?

Get advice from your GP before starting tai chi if you have any health concerns or an existing health condition. You may need to take certain precautions if you’re pregnant, have a hernia, back pain or severe osteoporosis.

Don't I need to be fit to do tai chi?

No, tai chi is for everyone. It is ideal for inactive older people wanting to raise their activity levels gently and gradually. Also, many of the tai chi movements can even be adapted to people with a disability, including wheelchair users.

Can I injure myself doing tai chi?

Tai chi is essentially a gentle activity unlikely to cause injury if done correctly. The exercises involve lots of flowing, easy movements that don’t stress the joints or muscles.

Tips on getting started

It’s a good idea to watch a class or attend a free taster session before signing up for a course. If you have a medical condition, any health concerns or haven’t exercised for a long time, speak to your GP before you start tai chi.

Are there different styles of tai chi?

Yes, such as yang, chen and wu. Some teachers often practise a combination of styles. The main differences between the different tai chi styles are in the speed of movement and the way the body holds the postures.

What’s the basic technique?

Tai chi is characterised by its slow, graceful, continuous movements that are gentle on the joints and muscles. Done correctly, you'll find that the tai chi poses flow smoothly from one into another. Many movements are completed with bent knees in a squat-like position.  

Can I learn tai chi from a book or DVD?

It’s a good idea to learn the basics of tai chi from an instructor to ensure your style is correct, effective and won't cause injury. You can consider using a book or DVD once you’re familiar with the poses. Find an instructor in your area.

Page last reviewed: 05/08/2013

Next review due: 05/08/2015

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Comments

The 6 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

OxfordAnnie said on 03 February 2014

I think it's a shame the moderators are leaving such a negative exchange untouched, very off putting for interested people.
No exercise system can answer all requirements. Tai chi offers relaxation, mental focus and bodily awareness amongst many others benefits. This can mean that it teaches you to decide what you are capable of doing and then doing it in an aware manner so you take care of your body and don't injure or strain yourself.
Compare this with gyms offering badly taught Zumba or spinning where people think they are doing their cardiovascular systems some good but are actually risking a heart attack!
Masses of research has been done on tai chi's health benefits as anyone searching on PubMed or other accessible search engines will see. Yes of course many of the researchers have experience of tai chi just as drug companies do when they research new drugs, physios when they research new treatments and so on. It is disingenuous to try to dismiss research in this way and disrespectful to the many academic departments who undertake thorough, well constructed research trials.
It is though important for tai chi to be well taught as with anything. There are useful links, above right, to the Tai Chi Union, Age UK and other bodies where reputable teachers and information can be found. Swimming with your head in the air and poor style can cause injury and be of little real use for improving fitness. Tai chi too has a lot of detail and needs to be done correctly with attention to weight bearing, weight shifting, stepping, correct structural alignment in the body and a return to relaxed movement without artificially introduced tension as is so usual in our society. Tai chi also has a long history of teaching mindfulness that buzz word so beloved of NICE and the medical world these days.
Just as those involved have an interest in promoting an activity, perhaps those on the outside looking in can only respond with prejudice or intolerance. You should take up tai chi!

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Jim W Morrison said on 08 December 2013

I think that D Scott makes John Motes' point. He has already got an investment in Tai Chi which makes it difficult for him to be objective. It is difficult for the sceptic to invest a lot of time in discovering the benefits of something about which they have questions. I think it is for the people who assert the benefits to provide the evidence. I am afraid this will need studies by non participants on a measurable basis.
I am not happy with AHMAAs reasoning that doing Tai Chi is better than not doing it. While I agree that the activity is probably quite harmless, it will be harmful if the participants are thinking they are benefiting if they are not. Many will see Tai Chi as an alternative to more rigorous exercise because it is easier. However it is not raising the heart very much or strengthening the muscles as suggested is required on other pages of this web site.
If anybody likes to reply to this please give me the credible evidence, particularly in relation to mental disorders. Teachers, do not go by what your students say because those that stay will say it is good because they have already committed themselves to Tai Chi by spending time and they have an excuse for not exerting themselves.

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AHMAA said on 11 October 2013

I teach both internal and external martial arts - Tai Chi and Karate Jutsu - basically, all martial arts are the same except for emphasis - internal arts like Tai Chi emphasise softness but there is hardness within - Karate Jutsu might emphasise hardness but there is softness within...

From both a health and a fighting point of view there is a best way to do things and that is with optimal bio-mechanical efficiency and that is determined by the functioning of the human body - so it's very similar for everyone.

Obviously as you get older or if you have injuries, you have to adapt what you want to do, to what you can do - which is why a qualified instructor IS important.

Tai Chi for health is actually far more subtle a remedy than it may appear. Tai Chi tends to be done mostly slowly in practice and this is relaxing and calming. It thus tends to reduce stress... and stress is a cause (either directly or indirectly) of many - if not all - illnesses. Stress reduces the efficiency of the body's immune system and that can lead to illness or impair the body's ability to recover from illness. So Tai Chi is not magic but it is darn effective.

Also Tai Chi teaches people to breathe fully and efficiently (Efficiency is a big thing whenever you talk about Tai Chi - either for fitness or for fighting) so you tend to get more air (and thus more oxygen) into the system than if your breathing was shallow - this may be beneficial.

Over the years I have taught many people (Adults from early 20's to mid 90's) and almost all have both enjoyed it (that's a valid 'health' result - mental health is important!) and found it made them feel fitter and healthier - which is not a scientific proof but is valid for the people doing it. So the simple conclusion that I recommend is that everyone (and that includes you) should give Tai Chi a go.

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D Scott said on 05 August 2013

It is a shame John is so scathing about Tai Chi when I am afraid his comments show some ignorance about this martial art. I recommend watching a master such as Liming Yue of the Chen Style Tai Chi centre or one of the Grand Masters on You Tube to dispel the perception that Tai Chi is intrinsically "slow" and has lost its fast kicks and punches.

It is an internal martial art rather than the external examples given by John. As such, its practice emphasises (among other things) relaxation and trying to focus the mind on the body and controlling its movements with precision. So, I respectfully suggest, that, for some people, this discipline brings a calmness that they would not otherwise achieve. In my case, the training has provided me with anti stress tools that I regularly use whilst I struggled to get any benefit from other techniques.

Also despite John's scepticism, any exercise is surely better than no exercise at all. I would however endorse the advice to go to a good,qualified teacher and not try to learn from a DVD or book as you can harm yourself if you do not get the postures right.

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JohnMortes said on 10 July 2013

It was only in the 20 century that Tai Chi lost the fast kicks, punches, leaps and explosive movements it shared with other forms of Wushu or Kung Fu. The slow forms were simply to make it easier for people to learn.

The vasts majority of medical studies on Tai Chi have been made by academics or scientists who are also Tai Chi teachers and therefore have vested interest in the result of the trials. I doubt whether the medical profession would be impressed if medical trials led by homeopaths or acupuncturists found that these were superior to conventional medicine.

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User606628 said on 16 October 2011

The link to the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain is incorrect and should be taichiunion.co.uk!

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