T'ai Chi


T'ai chi is an ancient Chinese exercise with movements that originate in martial arts practice. While used as a type of self-defense in its most advanced form, t'ai chi is practiced widely for its health and relaxation benefits. “Chinese shadow boxing,another name for T'ai chi, is one of the most popular low-intensity workouts around the world for people in search of well being and a way to combat stress.


Also known as t'ai chi ch'uan (pronounced tie-jee chu-wan), the name comes from Chinese characters that translated mean “supreme ultimate force.” The concept of t'ai chi, or the “supreme ultimate,” is based on the Taoist philosophy of yin and yang, or the nature of when opposites attract. Yin and yang combine opposing, but complementary, forces to create harmony in nature. By using t'ai chi, it is believed that the principal of yin and yang can be achieved. A disturbance in the flow of chi (qi), or the life force, is what traditional Chinese medicine bases all causes of disease in the body. By enhancing the flow of chi, practitioners of t'ai chi believe that the exercise can promote physical health. Students of t'ai chi also learn how to use the exercise in the form of meditation and mental exercise by understanding how to center and focus their cerebral powers.

A group of men and women in Beijing, China, practice T‘ai chi in a park, March 2013. While t‘ai chi is a self-defense method in its most advanced form, it is widely practiced for its health and relaxation benefits.

A group of men and women in Beijing, China, practice T‘ai chi in a park, March 2013. While t‘ai chi is a self-defense method in its most advanced form, it is widely practiced for its health and relaxation benefits.

In the traditional Chinese understanding of health and well-being, t'ai chi is not regarded as a self-sufficient compartment of a person's life, as physical exercise often is viewed by Westerners. Instead, t'ai chi is considered part of an overall way of healthful living that includes massage, proper diet, meditation, and herbal medicines as needed.


Surveys, including a 2007 inquiry by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), report that an estimated 2.3 million people use t'ai chi in the United States, many of whom report to use t'ai chi for health-related benefits including:

Of particular interest is a change in acceptance and popularity of t'ai chi among men in the United States. In the 1970s and 1980s, many adult males regarded t'ai chi as a form of exercise that was not challenging enough for “real men.” Since the late 1990s, however, more men have begun practicing t'ai chi in order to relieve stress or as a form of crosstraining with another sport.

While the additional benefits of t'ai chi remain to be studied, it continues to be widely practiced in the United States and other Western countries. The ancient art maintains its prominence in China, where many people incorporate it into their daily morning routine.



Lao Tzu (sixth century B.C.) is believed to have been a Chinese philosopher and the reputed author of the Tao te ching, the principal textofTaoistthought. He isconsidered the father of Chinese Taoism.

The main source of information on Lao Tzu's life is a biography written by the historian Ssu-ma Chien (145-86 B.C.) in his Records of the Historian. Lao Tzu is not really a person's name and is only an honorific designation meaning old man. It was common in this period to refer to respected philosophers and teachers with words meaning old or mature. It is possible that a man who assumed the pseudonym Lao Tzu was a historical person, but the term Lao Tzu is also applied as an alternate title to the supreme Taoist classic, Tao te ching (Classic of the Way and the Power).

An important quality of the tao is its “weakness,” or “submissiveness.” Because the tao itself is basically weak and submissive, it is best for man to put himself in harmony with the tao. Thus, the Tao te ching places strong emphasis on nonaction (wu wei), which means the absence of aggressive action. Man does not strive for wealth or prestige, and violence is to be avoided. This quietist approach to life was extremely influential in later periods and led to the development of a particular Taoist regimen that involved special breathing exercises and special eating habits that were designed to maintain quietude and harmony with the tao.

Historians also link Zhang to joining yin-yang from Taoism and “internal” aspects together into his exercises. The feeling of inner happiness remains a primary goal for those who practice t'ai chi. Although its ancient beginnings started as a martial art, t'ai chi was modified in the 1930s to the relaxing, low-intensity exercise that continues to have the potential to be transformed into a form of self-defense, similar to karate or kung-fu.


Zhang created a combination of movements and beliefs that led to the formation of the fundamental “Thirteen Postures” of his art. Over time, these primary actions have transformed into soft, slow, relaxed movements, leading to a series of movements known as a form. Several techniques linked together create a form. Proper posture is a key element when practicing t'ai chi to maintain balance. All of the movements used throughout the exercise are relaxed with the back straight and the head up.

Just as the movements of t'ai chi have evolved, so have the various styles or schools of the art. As the form has grown and developed, so has the difference in style along with the different emphasis from a variety of teachers. A majority of the different schools or styles of t'ai chi have been given their founder's surnames.

The principal schools of t'ai chi include:

Many of the most commonly used groupings of forms are based on the Yang style of t'ai chi, developed by Yang Pan-Hou (1837–1892). Each of the forms has a name, such as “Carry the Tiger to the Mountain,” and as the progression is made throughout the many forms, the participant ends the exercise almost standing on one leg. While most forms, like “Wind Blows Lotus Leaves,” has just one movement or part, others, like “Work the Shuttle in the Clouds,” have as many as four. While the form is typically practiced individually, the movement called “Pushing Hands” is a sequence practiced by two people together.



There is no age limitation for those who learn t'ai chi, and there is no special equipment needed for the exercise. Participants are encouraged to wear loose clothing and soft shoes.

Training and conditioning

Participants should select a qualified t'ai chi instructor. It is beneficial to consider the type of training and number of years of experience, whether or not the instructor specializes in a particular type of t'ai chi, and if the instructor is a member of a professional organization. Some instructors have their own website to offer information about their classes and on the practice of t'ai chi.

Masters of t'ai chi are trained extensively in the various forms of the art by grandmasters who are extremely skillful of the exercise and its origins. For those who wish to learn t'ai chi from a master, classes are taught throughout the world in health clubs, community centers, senior citizen centers, and official t'ai chi schools. Before entering a class, the instructor's credentials should be reviewed and they should be questioned about the form of t'ai chi they teach.

It is important for individuals to be shown the proper form to avoid strain, imbalance, and possible injury. In addition, they should know what parts of the body might be stressed by a particular posture, and be able to maintain their balance without undue limitations. Some of the more rigorous forms of the art may be too intense for older people, or for those who are not confident of their balance. Participants are encouraged to get a physician's approval before beginning any t'ai chi program.


Although t'ai chi is not physically demanding, it requires close attention to one's posture. Those who want to practice the exercise should notify their physician before beginning. The physician will caution the patient if they are taking medications that might interfere with balance, or if they have a condition that could make a series of t'ai chi movements dangerous.


The art of t'ai chi is many things to the people who practice it. To some, it is a stretching exercise that incorporates a deep-breathing program. To others, it is a martial art—and beyond this, it is often used as a dance or to accompany prayer. While the ways in which it is used may vary, one of the main benefits for those who practice it remains universal—t'ai chi promotes good health. This sense of well-being complements t'ai chi's additional benefits of improved coordination, balance, and body awareness, while also calming the mind and reducing stress. Those in search of harmony between the mind and the body practice dynamic relaxation.

Any of various forms of sustained vigorous exercise, such as jogging, calisthenics, or jazz dancing, intended to stimulate and strengthen the heart and respiratory system.
A steroid hormone released by the cortex (outer portion) of the adrenal gland when a person is under stress.
A chronic disease syndrome characterized by fatigue, widespread muscular soreness, and pain at specific points on the body.
The traditional Chinese term for vital energy or the life force. Also spelled “ki” or “chi” in English translations of Japanese and Chinese medical books.
A Chinese religion and philosophy based on the doctrines of Laotse that advocates simplicity and selflessness.

While the reasons why t'ai chi is practiced vary, research has uncovered several reasons why it may help many medical conditions. For example, people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are encouraged to practice t'ai chi for its graceful, slow sweeping movements. Its ability to combine stretching and range-of-motion exercises with relaxation techniques work well to relieve the stiffness and weakness in the joints of RA patients. An ongoing research program at Stanford University in California is evaluating the beneficial effects of t'ai chi on patients with fibromyalgia. A study of fibromyalgia patients in Georgia reported in 2003 that t'ai chi brought about significant improvement in the patients' control of their symptoms.

T'ai chi has also been shown to benefit patients with osteoarthritis (OA). A group of Korean researchers found that women diagnosed with OA showed significant improvement in their balance and abdominal muscle strength after a 12-week program of Sun-style t'ai chi.


In 1999, investigators from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, studied the effects of t'ai chi on those with elevated blood pressure. Sixty-two sedentary adults with high-normal blood pressure or stage I hypertension who were aged 60 or older began a 12-week aerobic program or a light-intensity t'ai chi program. The exercise sessions both consisted of 30-minute sessions, four days a week. The study revealed that while the aerobics did lower the systolic blood pressure of participants, the t'ai chi group's systolic level was also lowered by an average of seven points—only a point less than the aerobics group. Interestingly, t'ai chi hardly raises the heart rate while still having the same effects as an intense aerobics class.

In addition to lowering blood pressure, research suggests that t'ai chi improves heart and lung function. The exercise is linked to reducing the body's level of a stress hormone called cortisol, and to the overall effect of higher confidence for those who practice it. As a complementary therapy, t'ai chi is also found to enhance the mainstream medical care of cancer patients who use the exercise to help control their symptoms and improve their quality of life.

Physical therapists investigated the effects of t'ai chi among 20 patients during their recovery from coronary artery bypass surgery. The patients were placed into either the t'ai chi group or an unsupervised control group. The t'ai chi group performed classical Yang exercises each morning for one year, while the control group walked three times a week for 50 minutes each session. In 1999, the study reported that after one year of training, the t'ai chi group showed significant improvement in their cardio respiratory function and their work rate, but the unsupervised control group displayed only a slight decrease in both areas.

T'ai chi is also used to keep people from falling— something that happens to one in three people over age 65 each year. Researchers from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, had dozens of men and women in their 70s and older learn the graceful movements of t'ai chi. The study discovered that those who learned to perform t'ai chi were almost 50% less likely to experience falls within a given time frame than subjects who simply received feedback from a computer screen on how much they swayed as they stood. Those who fall experience greater declines in everyday activities than those who do not fall, and are at a greater risk of requiring placement in a nursing home or other type of assisted living. Researchers recommend the use of t'ai chi for its ability to help people raise their consciousness of how their bodies are moving in the environment around them. By raising awareness of how the body moves, people can focus on their relationship to their physical environment and situations they encounter everyday.

In addition to studying the cardiovascular and range-of-motion benefits of t'ai chi, researchers are investigating its positive effects on the immune system. A team of scientists in California reported in 2003 that t'ai chi boosts the resistance of older people to the shingles virus—a virus that is both more common and more severe in the elderly.

Some research done in the United States focuses on the emotional and psychological benefits of t'ai chi. One recently discovered advantage of t'ai chi is its ability to hold people's interest longer than many other forms of exercise. One study in Oregon found that only 20% of people enrolled in a six-month t'ai chi program dropped out before the end, compared to an average of 55% for other forms of exercise. With regard to depression, a study of college students found that those who were taking t'ai chi classes had a lower rate of depression than students enrolled in other fitness programs.

While the martial arts offer very vigorous physical workouts and often result in injuries, the practice of t'ai chi is a good alternative to these sports without overstraining the body. Patients with bad backs have found t'ai chi eases their discomfort.

See also Blood pressure and exercise ; Martial arts .



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American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, PO Box 96503, Washington, DC, 20090-6503, Admin@aaaomonline.org, https://www.aaaomonline.org .

Canadian Taijiquan Federation, 709-1285 Ontario St., Burlington, Ontario, L7S 1X9, Canada, http://www.canadiantaijiquanfederation.com .

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, 9000 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD, 20892, (888) 644-6226, https://nccih.nih.gov .

Patience T'ai Chi Association, PO Box 630001, Bronx, NY, 10463, (718) 332-3477, staff-at-PatienceTaiChi.com, http://www.patiencetaichi.com .

Rebecca J. Frey, PhD
Revised by Laura Jean Cataldo, RN, EdD

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.