While both tai chi (pronounced tie-chee) and yoga are recommended by experts to increase strength, balance, and flexibility, yoga is being increasingly associated with injuries so the question “is tai chi safe?” should also be addressed. Tai chi, however, has been shown to be safe for all ages and abilities, even if you are bedridden or in a wheelchair, and there is no need for special clothing or equipment. Tai chi is a low impact aerobic exercise that can help you start losing weight and get back into shape; however, as the book Tai Chi, The Perfect Exercise, by Arthur Rosenfeld, points out, it is also an exercise that can give anyone a lifetime of health benefits and well-being.
At the most basic level of tai chi, it is fairly easy to learn the prescribed set of moves that, when performed in sequence as a form, not only raise the metabolism but also work as a moving meditation, bringing on a calmer state of mind overall. This is something that many other exercises cannot offer and one of the many reasons tai chi is recommended so often for stress relief.
Tai chi moves are learned and performed at a slow, relaxed pace, making it very unlikely to cause injury. As you continue practicing and your body becomes stronger and more flexible, your stances can get deeper and you will be more likely to find yourself slowing down even further to coordinate your movements with your breathing. These elements add a conditioning aspect, which must not be rushed. Let your body get stronger and more flexible at the same slow, relaxed pace at which tai chi is performed, without strain. This method allows the tendons and ligaments to gradually but surely become more lubricated and elastic, rather than stressing them too quickly and risking injury. Strong tendons allow the muscles to grow in balance with your frame so you can stay flexible.
One of the main principles is that tai chi should be practiced in the most relaxed manner possible. There is an old story about the late tai chi master Cheng Man-Ch’ing that illustrates the importance of this concept. Whenever Professor Cheng, as he was often called, noticed one of his students break into a sweat, he would stop them and tell them to rest until they calmed themselves and returned their breathing to normal. This insistence on remaining calm and moving in a slow fluid way makes it almost impossible to hurt yourself when practicing tai chi (unless you are practicing tai chi as a martial art, with another person, which is another discussion).
In addition to strength, practicing tai chi will give you greater flexibility, balance, and coordination. Your ability to control yourself in any environment, whether a slippery street or a hiking trail, thus improves, keeping you safe even when you aren’t actively practicing tai chi.
Tai chi offers the health benefits and longevity benefits also attributed to yoga, as well as similar body energy cultivation and spiritual growth potential. However, as the test results come in showing that tai chi is safe for almost anyone, more information is surfacing that suggests that yoga can be inherently harmful, especially to the joints. One long-time instructor was quoted in the New York Times as saying that virtually everyone in the United States who is practicing yoga should just stop. He even went on to say that their teachers have been unknowingly taught bad practices and are innocently passing them along. Apparently, many yoga instructors suffer from at least minor joint pain but tend to ignore it. Even if these claims are exaggerated, the cautions continue to surface, whereas even if tai chi is taught badly, by a beginner, there is practically no risk of getting hurt.
As safe as it is, tai chi also provides a lifetime of physical and mental development in its practice. Once the mechanics of proper body stance and movement are learned in the easier forms, you can learn more complicated forms. These can teach you how to gather and store “spiraling energy” or you can spend a lifetime perfecting the slow, rhythmic movements of a single form to bring about a longer life with better health without medications or loss of mental faculties. Many tai chi teachers in China continue to be strong, fit, and alert well into their 80s and 90s!
Whether you practice tai chi as a mindful exercise to de-stress and learn to live in the moment, whether you focus on tai chi’s ability to promote a longer, healthier life, or use tai chi to condition your body and even learn tai chi’s self-defense and martial aspects of tai chi. In the end, it really doesn’t matter why you practice tai chi, so long as you do. I guarantee you will notice its positive effects almost immediately!