The ancient art of Tai chi is an amazing workout both for the body and the brain, at least that’s according to the BBC’s Michael Mosely on his Radio 4 podcast Just One Thing. Of course, here at Pippa’s Movement Therapy, it’s something we 100% agree with.
Tai chi is great for people of all ages and our classes usually contain a great mix of people from different backgrounds. It’s a brilliant way to improve flexibility and fitness as well as learn new skills such as mindfulness.
What is Tai Chi?
Tai chi is a form of moving meditation which combines a series of gentle movements or actions that are often given animal names such as ‘white crane spreads its wings’. These routines should be performed in a slow but continuous series where you focus on different parts of the body.
One of the benefits of tai chi, especially for those in their later years or who have neurological conditions, is that it is low impact and anyone can do it.
The philosophy of tai chi dates back thousands of years to ancient China and you may be surprised to learn that it’s considered a martial art. Over the last 50 or 60 years, it has come to places like the UK and practically every town and city has at least a few qualified instructors who run classes.
What Are the Benefits?
The physical benefits are improved balance, strength and flexibility. Even if you are an absolute beginner and have not exercised for a while, you should feel some benefits even after one session.
There’s been quite a lot of research carried out on the benefits of tai chi for a range of different conditions. For example, a few studies have found that regular sessions help improve balance and reduce falls in the elderly and patients with Parkinson’s. Another review found that tai chi can reduce pain and improve mobility for those with osteoarthritis.
Other benefits include improved leg and core strength as well as reduced stress levels. Because you are focusing on each movement rather than ‘just doing it’, there’s also more self-awareness when you practice tai chi which has all sorts of health and well-being benefits.
Tai Chi and Brain Function
While the physical benefits of tai chi are well known and have been researched relatively extensively, the mental benefits have not been so well covered.
In the Michael Mosely podcast, he talks about a study at the University of Hong Kong where practising tai chi was compared with normal aerobic exercise. Of course, both groups of people involved showed improvements in various cognitive functions but the ones that did tai chi got these benefits much earlier in the cycle.
The study also carried out brain imaging on the cohorts and found that our grey cells adapt and grow, especially when doing a meditative exercise like tai chi.
Another recent study showed that tai chi and conventional exercise do indeed work on the brain in different ways. With tai chi, you get a more prominent and global change in the brain and improved aspects such as language understanding and reading. Aerobic exercise tended to improve things like attention, on the other hand. The study concludes that tai chi may not only be a good exercise for those with dementia but might well prevent its earlier onset in older adults.
This isn’t too surprising for anyone who has practised tai chi for some time. It’s often called moving meditation. The slow movements of arms and legs are not done on autopilot but with a sense of focus and purpose. When you see a group practising in a park, it may seem a little odd the way they are concentrating on each move but until you’ve tried it you won’t know what you are missing.
Meditation itself is a skill that is well worth learning, whatever your age. It’s designed to bring a sense of calm, peace and balance to your body and mind and that can have huge benefits. In our fast-paced world, it’s easy to get lost in everything that is going on around us and to not find the time to contemplate and relax the mind and have a break.
In one study, it was found that regular meditation helped to reduce stress and, in particular, our inflammatory response to it. Stress is one of the biggest problems in the world today and many of us live with it to the detriment of our health and well-being. Taking time out to practice mindfulness and meditation is one simple thing you can do and tai chi is a great place to start.
There’s research to back up the notion that meditation can help improve emotional health as well. In a recent study, people who practised meditation displayed reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression. Mindfulness-based approaches are now being more widely used in medical circles to help avoid giving people medication which has long-term side effects.
Why You Should Take a Tai Chi Class
Tai chi combines exercise with meditation so it’s a great beginner’s introduction to a brilliant exercise that improves flexibility, balance and strength whilst also working on the mind. Sitting meditation can be quite difficult to master, especially if you are doing it on your own.
Another thing that is great for reducing stress and centring the mind is that a tai chi class is a social event. You get to meet people from all walks of life and of all ages. Even after finishing your first class, you are likely to feel a lot more relaxed and focused.
It’s worth taking a class with a qualified instructor. While the movements are fairly easy to pick up, the meditation part of it can be a little trickier. If you are not sure if it’s right for you, there are now plenty of online videos you can play to get a feel for what it is, however.
Where to Find Tai Chi Classes in Devon
If you live in Devon and you want to try a tai chi class, the good news is there are plenty to choose from. Check out our website today for more information.