Two years ago, Patricia Raymond began overeating and had difficulty sleeping. She blamed it on the stress of her demanding career as a physician and host of the National Public Radio show House Calls. To dissipate the tension, she practiced yoga and meditation and even hired a personal trainer. Nothing worked. Until she tried tai chi. "It just clicked," she says. "I enjoyed the graceful movements and the power."
Now Raymond occasionally teaches tai chi for arthritis sufferers and practices most days for 30 minutes. It's so effective, she says, her staff will send her back to her office to do it if she ever skips her morning routine. "Afterward, I'm more focused and less tense," she says.
What Raymond has discovered is something people have known for millennia. Tai chi, after all, originated in China as a fusion of martial arts and qigong, a type of Chinese medicine that uses the mind to direct energy in the body.
Today, tai chi--which has retained more of its qigong roots than its martial arts roots--is a system of movements designed to reduce stress and enhance health and longevity. "Tai chi teaches you to be aware of where your body is tense," says Bruce Frantzis, an instructor who trained for more than a decade in China and author of Tai Chi: Health for Life and Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body (Blue Snake Books, 2006). "Through practice, you learn how to relax your mind and body so that inner pressure is replaced with inner peace."
That inner peace may also be accompanied by lower blood pressure, better balance, improved breathing, and increased joint mobility and flexibility. Studies have also shown that tai chi can help prevent falls among the elderly, boost immunity, improve posture and balance, and build strength in the lower body, says Maureen McKenna, P.T., Ph.D., assistant professor of physical therapy at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia.
Kathleen Caputi, 50, of Northport, N.Y., can attest to these health benefits. She began doing tai chi almost a year ago upon the recommendation of a chiropractor. At the time, Caputi was experiencing stress-related neck and shoulder pain, and although she was doing regular aerobic exercise and strength training, those activities weren't enough. After taking up tai chi, though, the relief was immediate. "Tai chi teaches you how to get outside your mind," she says. "Knowing how to do that helps me handle stress better." Caputi takes classes regularly but also integrates tai chi into her life, doing moves before work, at the office, even while standing in line at stores.
Regular practitioners like Caputi come to treasure the calm centeredness of tai chi--but for beginners the movements can feel awkward or stiff, and relaxing is difficult. That's where breathing can help. "Focusing on the breath can calm you down," McKenna says. To breathe properly during the moves, expand your belly as you inhale; as you exhale, let the belly return to its normal position. Continue this slow, steady breathing throughout the practice.
Unlike many physical activities, tai chi is more effective when done at 70 percent of your potential capacity. "Although most of us are trained to go all out, exerting more than 70 percent may increase tension and stress in your body," Frantzis explains. Caputi admits that adjusting to the slower pace took time. "At first it's work to integrate all the aspects, like finding a correct stance, breathing, and relaxing, but after a while it becomes second nature," she says.