We run blindly through this world when we’re young. We don’t notice so many “adult” things as they go blurring by. Then as we age we start to slow down and take notice. We recognize more beauty, what’s important, and we start making health a priority.
Young people pay little attention to Tai Chi because it looks so slow and boring. They just sprint to the gym to beat their brains out lifting weights or training whatever crazy exercise du jour.
Tai Chi is most often practiced by older adults because they’ve gained the wisdom to see its benefits, and because people who start practicing tend to keep practicing for a long time. Tai Chi is the most popular and profound exercise in the world because it prioritizes true health over weight loss (aesthetics), mere strength and “fitness”(I say “fitness” is a dirty word). And Tai Chi can help people to become their best selves.
I’ve been teaching Tai Chi for almost 20 years. I once taught an 80-year-old lady who loved to play golf. Six months into her practice she told me she was playing the best golf of her life. She could drive the ball farther and putt with more accuracy than ever before. She credited those improvements to Tai Chi.
I also taught a 58-year-old man who loved alpine ski racing. In his first few months he said he was feeling much more flexible, balanced, and coordinated. By the time he had practiced for a year he started winning ski races. He was faster than guys who beat him for years, and he even beat a few young guys from the U.S. Ski Team (on short courses, of course).
I also taught Tai Chi to students who use it to fight debilitating illnesses like COPD, fibromyalgia, neuropathy, multiple sclerosis, spinal stenosis, Parkinson’s, and most recently myasthenia gravis. They thank me all the time for showing them the way; but really they did it themselves.
I share these examples to demonstrate how older adults who discover Tai Chi can accomplish things they couldn’t imagine. And I would like to explain some of the mechanisms of Tai Chi to pull back the curtains and demystify the art.
Turn your hips to turn back the clock
As we get older the hips grow tighter. Tai Chi practice always includes QiGong (pronounced chee-gung) exercises to relax, loosen and stretch the hips and waist. When the hips and waist become more relaxed and flexible all sorts of wonderful things start to happen. Posture improves, balance improves, and walking gait improves. You will move like a younger version of yourself, feel younger and look younger. And you can probably fire your chiropractor.
Relaxation makes the magic
People think relaxing comes from vacation, or alcohol, gardening, or maybe a good book. But Tai Chi teaches muscle tonus through posture, movement and mental queues. Tonus is the relative state of relaxation of a muscle or muscle group (“muscle tone” is most often a misnomer implying strength). I don’t know of any other system that teaches relaxation like Tai Chi. And the human body loves it. Tons of clinical research studies tout the body’s “relaxation response,” and how health problems can almost melt away.
Breathe better, be better
People typically pant (like dogs) all day long. Short, choppy breaths that barely keep them alive. Breathing only improves during sleep because consciousness no longer dictates. Think about sleep breathing. Longer, slower, deeper. That’s how Tai Chi prescribes breathing. Your body craves oxygen, and when you practice better breathing you give your body much more oxygen than when you pant. Every system in the body works better with more oxygen: the brain, the blood, the immune system, energy levels, etc. But you need to learn how to breathe better, and you have to practice the better breathing. Doctors cannot teach you this.
Gut health requires gut massage
Circling back to the special QiGong (callisthenic) exercises that loosen and stretch the hips and waist, these exercises also mobilize and massage the internal organs (viscera). When people sit too much and don’t move around the intestines and organs stagnate; their functionality is reduced. When people move the hips and waist across all three planes the internal organs get moved around, compressed and jostled. This movement is beneficial for the organs, and their functionality is greatly enhanced. Good digestion is critical to maintaining health.
Health goes undefined until it’s gone
Remember eighth-grade health class? The word “health” gets tossed around in medicine, exercise, nutrition and everywhere else. But what is health? I like to frame it around sports. Imagine an Olympic athlete, bulging with muscle, lean and fine from head to toe. Now imagine she has a stomach flu. Same fine body but none of the ability. What did she lose? Her health. She can’t perform or compete. If she regains her health but then breaks her leg, she has again lost her health. A marathon runner with six-packs abs and incredible stamina may run out of gas and end up lying on the side of the road. She still has six-pack abs but she can’t go any farther. She lost her health. Tai Chi is the profound art that teaches the true meaning of health and how to hold onto it. Won’t you join me?
This article was contributed by Tai Chi Master and Wellness Expert Tommy Kirchhoff spent three decades refining Healing Exercise, a therapeutic, medicinal movement program based on Tai Chi. He is on a mission to educate seniors, doctors and everyone about the proven health benefits of this gentle martial art.