Attending a wellness conference in Wisconsin about 30 years ago, I was intrigued by the title of one of the courses: “Spiritual Disciplines of Well-Being.” That sounded like something that would be helpful to me at that time in my life, and maybe later.

I was surprised that the teacher, a minister from Snowmass, Colo., was teaching tai chi to the class. The course was a turning point in my life. He instructed us in the eight basic forms of tai chi, explaining it was a meditative movement, a martial art and a gentle physical exercise.

Derived from practices in ancient monasteries in China, tai chi initially was based on observing the movements of animals and nature. But it’s also a kind of slow-motion kung fu. As a martial art, it offered the softness of a “yield and overcome” approach seen in aikido or jiu-jitsu.

The pace, the slow movement, the meditation and the measured breathing calm the mind while strengthening the body. The gentle, circular movements, bending and stretching are not unlike a standing form of yoga. 

I was fresh off an anterior cruciate knee ligament tear that impaired my movement and give me a lot of misery. The rhythmic movements of tai chi just felt good and I kept practicing them when I came home from the conference.

I soon found a tai chi master who kept a studio and an academy of students less than two miles from my home. For about $15 a week, I attended individual lessons, learning one movement or form per week and blending them together in what is called the tai chi long form. This is a graceful, ballet-like set of movements, which takes me about 20 minutes and is a great start to the day.

Missing tai chi even for a few days, I notice that I am stiffer, not only physically, but mentally; more easily thrown off-center; less peaceful; less tolerant and forgiving. I guess that’s what was meant by the “spiritual discipline of well-being” part in my first course. 

Tai chi has been extensively studied for its health benefits. I co-authored a chapter for a book on integrative cardiology with Dr. Gloria Yeh, a Harvard researcher whose interest is tai chi. We reported on numerous studies that showed tai chi to be helpful in reducing blood pressure, improving cardiac function, lung function, heart failure symptoms and even lowering cholesterol.

This is surprising information for those of us accustomed to thinking that “cardio” exercise has to be fast-paced and raise the heart rate for a certain time to be beneficial. Indeed, despite the slow, choreographic nature of tai chi, the studies Dr. Yeh and I found showed tai chi offers the same benefit as moderate cardiovascular exercise.

This is good news for those who have trouble exercising. For many older patients or those who are overweight or obese, exercise can be uncomfortable, even painful. Finding something that is gentle, that promotes fitness for mind-body and spirit and that can be easily practiced anywhere with no equipment is a challenge. 

Tai chi is just such an exercise. 

Studies in older adults have found not only fitness and cardiovascular benefits but also reduction in falls and fear of falling. This alone is a huge benefit, as older adults often move less as they start to lose sensation in their feet or legs, feel unsteady in standing or gait, or have had a fall or two.

Learning the centering, balancing, smooth movements of tai chi gives many of them the opportunity to move more, reduce falls and improve stiffness caused by arthritis, neurological conditions and inactivity. Mood improvements are noted as well. When tai chi has been offered in nursing homes, even patients with dementia became calmer.

I commonly recommend some of the tai chi movements to my patients for physical rehabilitation from injury and surgery.

So how do you learn tai chi? Though I studied under a tai chi master for seven years to achieve expertise, you can learn tai chi more easily and quickly a number of ways. The UTMB Health Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Galveston (409-763-5604) has regular tai chi classes. These are offered by dedicated, skilled instructors for those 55 and over, as well as their younger buddies.  

There are also numerous instructional DVDs and even short YouTube videos to get you started on tai chi on your own or in a group. One of our family medicine therapists has started a program offering midday tai chi for our staff and nurses using just a short online video. It is great stress management. 

Tai chi is also an underpinning to the art of Chinese ballet, so you don’t have to feel like you have to be a martial artist to do it.

So, give tai chi a try if you are looking for an easy, comfortable, fun and relaxing way to move to improve your health. Yield and overcome. And, remember, it isn’t which storms we weather that count, it is how we dance in the rain!

Dr. Sierpina is the W.D. and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch.

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