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The Essentials of Taiji (Tai Chi) and Qigong Training for Older Adults: No Pain, Lots of Gain

Jan 19, 2012

Written by Yang Yang, Ph.D.; Scott Grubisich; Matthew F. Komelski, M.A.

Among the traditional maxims of Western sports and exercise is the long-standing slogan “no pain; no gain,” suggesting we must push ourselves to the point of suffering and great discomfort to get results. However, recent research on the ancient Chinese mind/body practice of taiji (also spelled “Tai Chi”) has shown that significant benefits can be achieved through regular practice, at a pace that is best described by the adage “train, don’t strain.”

The genius of the taiji method is that it mbines traditional Chinese martial arts exercises with meditation. This combination creates a system of practice that has many health benefits, including stress reduction and improved cardiovascular and immune system function. Moreover, taiji is among the foremost exercise interventions recommended for fall prevention in seniors. The three essential practices of taiji are meditation, martial arts form and partner training, usually called push-hands. These three interrelated and interdependent elements of taiji promote holistic benefits by improving physical, mental, and spiritual well being.

Qigong
Rather than discuss the “pace” of taiji, it is more informative to describe the “state” one aspires to during practice. Taiji practitioners learn to enter a state of relaxation where the senses are heightened and unnecessary muscular tension is released. This is achieved through the seminal practice of qigong meditation. Qigong, or “energy work,” is composed of sitting, standing, lying down, and moving meditations. One traditional aphorism expresses the importance of meditation in setting the stage for future developments:

If you don’t have quiet or tranquility, you will never see the miracle of moving.

Scientific journals have recently recognized meditation as having a protective influence against age-related cognitive declines, and it is also associated with improvements in executive brain function. In the taiji tradition, meditation has long been considered to improve clarity and decision making, and is among the reasons that taiji masters are considered to grow more formidable with age. Other types of qigong include standing meditation, which teaches structural awareness and relaxation, and lying-down qigong, which restoratively relaxes the core musculature. These practices work synergistically with moving qigong and taiji form to promote flexibility and dynamic balance by improving the quality of the mind/body relationship.

Taiji Form
With a quiet, awakened mind and a relaxed aware body, the martial choreography of taiji simply becomes an extension of the work begun in qigong training. Taiji forms for beginners are typically executed slowly with knees slightly bent. Care should be taken not to overexert or bend the knees to an uncomfortable degree. There are a number of orthodox styles of taiji, each with its own patterns of choreography, yet the basic principles of taiji – natural breathing, attention to efficient posture and an awareness of the interplay between force and relaxation – can be found in all styles of taiji. While advanced choreographies can seem intimidating to onlookers, the simple, fundamental practices introduced to beginners are enough to yield profoundly beneficial results.

Taiji Push-Hands
The third essential practice of taiji is a kind of partner training known as push-hands. This practice involves students cooperatively testing and honing each others’ balance skills. This practice plays an important role in fall prevention by improving balance recovery and stability limits, but since this practice requires students to make contact, a margin of danger exists if students have not cultivated skill through qigong and form training. It is not recommended that push-hands be taught too soon or practiced without guidance.

Finding a Teacher/School
Unlike the latest DVD installments of some training methods, taiji is best learned with a qualified experienced teacher – not only for safety’s sake, but to avoid wasting time on practices that do not work. As one traditional saying reminds us:

One word from a knowledgeable teacher will save 10 years of hard practice.

The best way to make sure you are learning efficiently is to find a qualified teacher who is knowledgeable in the three essential practices mentioned above. Aside from regularly scheduled practices, students should also discuss their individual practice routines with their teachers, seeking advice about what to practice between classes. While time with a teacher is essential to prevent or correct mistakes, time practicing on one’s own is often where the greatest gains are made. This is reflected in the saying:

The teacher will lead you to the door, but it is up to the student to improve.

Likewise, it is up to individuals to decide whether or not taiji is right for them. Taiji provides the opportunity to engage in a practice that is mentally stimulating and physically vigorous, yet controlled so as not to induce strain, or overuse injuries. Along with the welcomed mantra “no pain and lots of gain,” taiji offers a long list of benefits that support healthy, happy, and independent living throughout the life cycle.

View the full fall 2008 issue of the ACSM Fit Society® Page online.

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