Tai chi is a mind-body practice that originated in China as a martial art. It developed in China in about the 12th century A.D. It started as a martial art or a practice for fighting or self-defense, usually without weapons.
Over time, people began to use tai chi for health purposes as well. Many different styles of tai chi, and variations of each style, developed. A person practicing tai chi moves her body in a slow, relaxed, and graceful series of movements. One can practice on one's own or in a group. The movements make up what are called forms (or routines). Some movements are named for animals or birds, such as White Crane Spreads Its Wings.
In tai chi, each movement flows into the next. The entire body is always in motion, with the movements performed gently and at uniform speed. It is considered important to keep the body upright, especially the upper body-many tai chi practitioners use the image of a string that goes from the top of the head into the heavens-and to let the body's weight sink to the soles of the feet.
In addition to movement, two other important elements in tai chi are breathing and meditation which is conscious mental process using certain techniques, such as focusing attention or maintaining a specific posture to suspend the stream of thoughts and relax the body and mind. In tai chi practice, it is considered important to concentrate; put aside distracting thoughts; and breathe in a deep, relaxed, and focused manner.
Another concept in tai chi is that the forces of yin and yang -the concept of two opposing yet complementary forces described in traditional Chinese medicine. Yin represents cold, slow, or passive aspects of the person, while yang represents hot, excited, or active aspects. A major theory is that health is achieved through balancing yin and yang and disease is caused by an imbalance leading to a blockage in the flow of qi. In Chinese philosophy, yin and yang are two principles or elements that make up the universe and everything in it and that also oppose each other. Yin is believed to have the qualities of water, such as coolness, darkness, stillness, and inward and downward directions and to be feminine in character. Yang is believed to have the qualities of fire, such as heat, light, action, and upward and outward movement and to be masculine. In this belief system, people's yin and yang need to be in balance in order for them to be healthy, and tai chi is a practice that supports this balance.
Tai chi is a relatively safe practice. However, there are some cautions. Tell your health care provider if you are considering learning tai chi for health purposes. If you do not position your body properly in tai chi or if you overdo practice, you may get sore muscles or sprains. Tai chi instructors often recommend that people not practice tai chi right after they eat, or when they are very tired, or when they have an active infection. Use caution if you have any of the conditions listed below, as your health care provider should advise you whether to modify or avoid certain postures in tai chi.