for Health Purposes
Tai chi (pronounced "tie chee" and also
known by some other names and spellings ¹)
is a mind-body practice that originated in China as a martial art. A
person doing tai chi moves his body slowly and gently, while breathing
deeply and meditating (tai chi is sometimes called "moving
meditation"). Many practitioners believe that tai chi helps the flow
throughout the body of a proposed vital energy called qi² (pronounced "chee," it means
"air" or "power"). In the United States,
tai chi for health purposes is part of complementary and alternative
medicine, or CAM. This Backgrounder provides a general overview of tai
chi and suggests some resources you can use to find more information.
- Many people who practice tai chi do so to
improve one or more
aspects of their health and to stay healthy. Resources for finding
published research on this practice are listed at the end of this
- It is not fully known what changes occur
in the body during tai
chi, whether they influence health, and, if so, how. The National
Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is sponsoring
studies to find out more about tai chi's effects, how it works, and
diseases and conditions for which it may be most helpful.
- Tell your health care providers about any
alternative practices you use. Give them a full picture of what you do
to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.
Description of Tai Chi
Tai chi developed in China in about the 12th
century A.D. It started
as a martial art, or a practice for fighting or self-defense, usually
without weapons. Over time, people began to use tai chi for health
purposes as well. Many different styles of tai chi, and variations of
each style, developed. The term "tai chi" has been translated in
various ways, such as "internal martial art," "supreme ultimate
boxing," "boundless fist," and "balance of the opposing forces of
nature." While accounts of tai chi's history often differ, the most
consistently important figure is a Taoist monk (and semilegendary
figure) in 12th-century China named Chang San-Feng (or Zan Sanfeng).
Chang is said to have observed five animals--tiger, dragon, leopard,
snake, and crane--and to have concluded that the snake and the crane,
through their movements, were the ones most able to overcome strong,
unyielding opponents. Chang developed an initial set of exercises that
imitated the movements of animals. He also brought flexibility and
suppleness in place of strength to the martial arts, as well as some
key philosophical concepts.
A person practicing tai chi moves her body
in a slow, relaxed, and
graceful series of movements. One can practice on one's own or in a
group. The movements make up what are called forms (or routines). Some
movements are named for animals or birds, such as "White Crane Spreads
Its Wings." The simplest style of tai chi uses 13 movements; more
complex styles can have dozens.
In tai chi, each movement flows into the
next. The entire body is
always in motion, with the movements performed gently and at uniform
speed. It is considered important to keep the body upright, especially
the upper body-many tai chi practitioners use the image of a string
that goes from the top of the head into the heavens-and to let the
body's weight sink to the soles of the feet.
In addition to movement, two other important
elements in tai chi are breathing and meditation³.
In tai chi practice, it is considered important to concentrate; put
aside distracting thoughts; and breathe in a deep, relaxed, and focused
manner. Practitioners believe that this breathing and meditation have
many benefits, such as:
- Massaging the internal organs.
- Aiding the exchange of gases in the lungs.
- Helping the digestive system work better.
- Increasing calmness and awareness.
- Improving balance.
¹ - Among the different names and
spellings of tai chi are taiji and t'ai
chi. Many consider the term "tai chi" to be a shortened form of "tai
chi chuan" (two other spellings are t'ai chi ch'uan and taijiquan).
² - In traditional
Chinese medicine, the vital energy or life force proposed to regulate a
person's spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health and to be
influenced by the opposing forces of yin and yang.
³ - A
conscious mental process using certain techniques -- such as focusing
attention or maintaining a specific posture -- to suspend the stream of
thoughts and relax the body and mind.
NCCAM has provided this material for your information. It is not
intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your
primary health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any decisions
about treatment or care with your health care provider. The mention of
any product, service, or therapy is not an endorsement by NCCAM.
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