If you’re looking for a way to reduce stress, consider tai chi (TIE-CHEE). Originally developed for self-defense, tai chi has evolved into a graceful form of exercise that’s now used for stress reduction and a variety of other health conditions. Often described as meditation in motion, tai chi promotes serenity through gentle, flowing movements.
What is tai chi?
Tai chi is an ancient Chinese tradition that, today, is practiced as a graceful form of exercise. It involves a series of movements performed in a slow, focused manner and accompanied by deep breathing.
Tai chi, also called tai chi chuan, is a noncompetitive, self-paced system of gentle physical exercise and stretching. Each posture flows into the next without pause, ensuring that your body is in constant motion.
Tai chi has many different styles. Each style may subtly emphasize various tai chi principles and methods. There are variations within each style. Some styles may focus on health maintenance, while others focus on the martial arts aspect of tai chi.
Tai chi is different from yoga, another type of meditative movement. Yoga includes various physical postures and breathing techniques, along with meditation.
Who can do tai chi?
Tai chi is low impact and puts minimal stress on muscles and joints, making it generally safe for all ages and fitness levels. In fact, because tai chi is a low-impact exercise, it may be especially suitable if you’re an older adult who otherwise may not exercise.
You may also find tai chi appealing because it’s inexpensive and requires no special equipment. You can do tai chi anywhere, including indoors or outside. And you can do tai chi alone or in a group class.
Although tai chi is generally safe, women who are pregnant or people with joint problems, back pain, fractures, severe osteoporosis or a hernia should consult their health care provider before trying tai chi. Modification or avoidance of certain postures may be recommended.
The Five Different Types of Tai Chi
There are five primary forms or “styles” of Tai Chi: Chen, Yang, Hao, Wu, Chen, and Sun. Each follows the same premise, which is to combine meditation and martial arts, but there are some slight variations.
Developed in the 1600s, Chen is the oldest (and therefore the original) form of tai chi. According to Taichi.ca, it was developed by the Chen family in the Chen Village, and is characterized by a combination of slow and then quick movements, including jumping, kicking, and striking.
Chen also utilizes a movement called “silk reeling,” which is essentially a spiral-esque, flowing movement that starts at the feet and moves into the hands and is the foundation of Chen-style tai chi.
Yang is often considered the most popular form of Tai Chi and is the most widely practiced across the globe today. It was founded by Yang Lu-Ch’an in the mid-1800s and builds off the original Chen style.
The difference is that it focuses more on improving flexibility via grand, sweeping movements that are executed in a slow and graceful motion. Because it doesn’t use the quick fast movements of Chen, it’s considered more accessible and ideal for all ages and fitness levels, which is likely why it’s so popular.
Also one of the most popular versions of Tai Chi, the Wu version was developed by Wu Ch’uan-yu who was actually trained under Yang. What sets it apart from other forms of Tai Chi is that it focuses on extending the body by leaning forward and backward versus standing in a centered position. In that sense, it very much focuses on improving balance.
The Sun form of Tai Chi was developed by Sun Lutang, a Confucian and Taoist scholar who was also an expert in several different forms of Chinese martial arts.
This version involves more footwork compared to the others, which is paired with soft and silk-reeling hand movements. When you see it performed from beginning to end, it very much resembles a beautiful choreographed dance.
Hao is considered the least popular of all five forms of Tai Chi, largely because it is quite nuanced and requires a more advanced skill level. This form places a strong emphasis on “controlling the movement of qi (internal force)” and isn’t recommended for those who are new to the art.
The Benefits of Tai Chi
Tai Chi boasts many benefits to both your inner and outer health. The below are the most notable, but this is not an exhaustive list.
- Relieves stress and anxiety: the meditative aspect of Tai Chi combined with the physical movement can help calm your mind, improve focus, and can even help trigger the release of feel-good endorphins.
- Boosts cognitive abilities: In addition to improving your mental wellbeing, Tai Chi has also been found to boost cognitive abilities. A 2013 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science stated that physical exercise, in general, improves cognitive function and researchers specifically recommended Tai Chi for elderly people since it’s a gentler and more accessible form of physical exercise that also combines mental exercises via repeated “choreography.”1
- Increases flexibility and agility:Similar to yoga, Tai Chi often involves extensions of the body that can generally improve upon your flexibility and agility. This comes in handy in your day-to-day life but can also make you more agile and capable in other sports.
- Improves balance and coordination skills: In addition to improving flexibility and agility, the intricate “yin and yang” of Tai Chi movements can help you with balance and coordination. Again, this skill is useful in your daily life (those fine motor skills can even help prevent trips, stumbles, and falls) and in other sports.
- Enhances strength and stamina: As with any form of physical exercise, Tai Chi can build upon your existing strength and stamina. With ongoing practice, you might find you’re leaner, that your muscles are more defined, and that you’re able to exercise for longer periods of time.
How to get started
If you’re ready to give tai chi a try, you might be wondering how to get started. Here are a few tips that will point you in the right direction.
- Find an instructor: The best way to learn and practice tai chi is with an instructor. You can look for classes at senior centers, local fitness facilities, the YMCA, or tai chi centers. If you’re unable to locate any on your own, try searching online.
- Watch the class first: Talk to the instructor ahead of time about observing the class before you commit. This allows you to see the moves in action and get a feel for the class. If you can, try to talk with a few of the participants to see how they like doing tai chi.
- Check out YouTube: Beyond the more formal videos you can find online, YouTube is also home to some great clips on different tai chi moves.
After learning tai chi, you may eventually feel confident enough to do tai chi on your own. But if you enjoy the social aspects of a class, consider continuing with group tai chi classes.
How much tai chi should I do?
- There’s not enough research to suggest what the optimal dose of tai chi is to accrue benefits.
- Studies have shown effects with as little participation as one hour of training per week, although, as in any new activity (such as dancing) there is a sharp learning curve in the beginning, and many individuals might find participating two to three times per week, at least in the beginning, is probably a more effective dose.
- It is the conventional wisdom in tai chi circles that a person needs at least one year of tai chi before one becomes proficient.
Even though tai chi is considered one of the safer forms of physical fitness, it’s still a good idea to talk with your doctor before trying something new, especially if you have any existing medical conditions.
While participating in a tai chi class, if you feel dizzy or faint, stop what you’re doing and sit down. If the feeling continues, make sure to check-in with your doctor.
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- Proper posture the tai chi way.(n.d.).
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- Mayo Clinic Staff. (n.d.). Tai chi: A gentle way to fight stress.
- Mortazavi H, et al. (2018). The effect of tai chi exercise on the risk and fear of falling in older adults: A randomized clinical trial. DOI:
- Sungkarat S, et al. (2018). Tai chi improves cognition and plasma BDNF in older adults with mild cognitive impairment: A randomized controlled trial. DOI:
- Tai chi and qi gong: In depth. (2016).
- Wang C, et al. (2018). Effect of tai chi versus aerobic exercise for fibromyalgia: Comparative effectiveness randomized controlled trial. DOI:
Wu Y, Wang Y, Burgess EO, Wu J. The effects of Tai Chi exercise on cognitive function in older adults: A meta-analysis. Journal of Sport and Health Science. 2013;2(4):193-203. doi:10.1016/j.jshs.2013.09.001