I first became curious about tai chi several years ago while observing a small group practicing the ancient martial art in a nearby park. Much like moving through water, they flowed slowly and gracefully through a sequence of choreographed movements with intense focus.
Tai chi originated in China during the 16th century. Its physical and mental health benefits range from improving flexibility and balance to decreasing anxiety and depression while promoting a mind/body connection. As someone who juggles a fast-paced schedule, I am always seeking tools to improve my overall well-being. So when I recently saw tai chi offered at a local yoga studio, I signed up.
The first thing I noticed was that my classmates were positively glowing. Greeting me warmly, some shared the benefits they receive from tai chi after learning I was new to the practice.
“It just makes me feel better,” one beaming participant said.
“I always feel a little lighter walking out of class,” added another.
Jennifer Ables, who started practicing tai chi years ago when she was sick, said the practice helped restore her physical and mental health.
“Now when I practice tai chi, I notice numerous benefits every time. I always feel more grounded and focused in my day. I notice a renewed energy flow, feeling positive and energized,” she shared.
If tai chi was the gateway to achieving this glow, I wanted in. I removed my shoes – most studio classes are barefoot – and found a spot up front in hopes that I could follow along with our instructor, Héctor Muñoz. He has been practicing tai chi since 2009 and teaching for seven years. Often called a “moving meditation,” he instead likens the practice to “moving medication,” due to its immense health benefits.
We started the class with what’s known as qigong shaking. We stood and bounced up and down on our heels while loosely swinging our arms, wrists and hands. I later learned that this warm-up movement helps clear stress by opening blockages in your body’s energy pathways and encouraging the flow of energy, or qi as it’s called in traditional Chinese medicine. It also loosens up your joints and increases blood circulation.
Next, Muñoz led us through a series of tai chi postures in the oldest style of the practice called Chen.
With names like Buddha’s Warrior Pounds Mortar, Lazy About Tying Coat and White Crane Spreads Its Wings, each movement flows into the next and is focused and controlled. I tried each posture, moving one arm, then the other, followed by each leg, often in slow, circular motions. It’s this type of movement that helps improve balance, a major benefit of tai chi.
“The shift of your weight from left to right makes you stronger in your legs, your support system and more confident in walking, maybe even walking on surfaces that are uneven,” said Muñoz.
The practice also offers an alternative to the “no pain, no gain” approach to fitness.
“Tai chi is no pain, lots of gain,” Muñoz said. “Part of the benefit is that you elongate the muscles rather than make them bulky, which means flexibility.”
As class continued, I could feel the tension leaving my shoulders. It felt good to slow down. Then something unexpected happened: I nearly burst into tears. I felt a sudden lump in my throat and the only way to keep from falling into a full sob was to focus on my breathing. Turns out, it’s not unusual to feel emotional as you let go of tension.
“The fact is that we don’t realize how tense we are. It’s this gentle movement and deep breathing that releases stress for emotional and mental benefits,” Muñoz shared.
Practicing tai chi is also an opportunity for self-discovery.
“I had a student say ‘I have resolved so many issues in your classes – issues about decision-making, relationships, connecting deeper with others,’” he said.
The end of class included a standing meditation, which offered an opportunity to be present and still while focusing on our breath and noticing sensations in our bodies. As I put on my shoes, waved goodbye to my classmates and walked out of the studio, I definitely felt lighter and more focused.
“Am I glowing?” I wondered.
I wasn’t sure. But I did know that I’d be back.
By Amy Connor