There are many fitness regimes that incorporate breathing techniques, yoga being one of them. However, while other exercise programs, especially those which involve high impact and strenuous workouts depend on the fitness level of the individual Tai Chi is generally suitable for persons of all fitness levels. Of course the speed and intensity of Tai Chi routines can be adjusted for fitness levels so as to maximize the benefit to each individual.
Tai Chi Chuan or Tai Chi for short is best known these days for its health benefits but its origin is as a form of martial art. This may be hard to reconcile with the gentle routines and dance like movements followed by its practitioners. Tai Chi is an “Internal Martial art” – one that concentrates on building inner strength as opposed to demonstration of external brute force.
Tai Chi operates on 4 levels – Physical, intellectual, spiritual and as a form of combat.
As a physical exercise Tai Chi movements or forms involve a surprisingly large range of joint rotations and therefore promote flexibility and help improve metabolism, circulation and cardiovascular health.
On an intellectual level Tai Chi involves relaxation and focus – awareness of your body, its posture, balance and co-ordination. Tai Chi works on principles of qi (pronounced as chee). Qi assumes the existence of channels of bio energy – it is a life force that governs our being. This is by no means a concept unique to Tai Chi and is equivalent to the Yoga concept of “Prana”.
Proponents of Tai Chi believe that this life energy is transported throughout the body through 12 main meridians and 8 secondary meridians. As long as qi continues to flow uninterrupted through these invisible channels (meridians) the body remains strong and healthy. However, when passage of the qi is blocked by bad posture, inactivity, injury or other factors that’s when problems set in.
Breathing techniques are an integral part of this process of distributing qi. Every Tai Chi movement involves collecting storing and distributing energy. Inhaling stores energy while exhaling delivers energy. Breathing is matched with appropriate movements. For instance when hands move apart in an opening movement or you step forward this is accompanied by inhalation and storing of energy while punching or when hands come together this coincides with exhalation and distribution of energy.
Tai Chi teaches its students to breathe abdominally – to let the breath or qi sink to the “Tan Tien” i.e. the area below the navel. This gives the body a sense of strength and stability.
The spiritual aspect of Tai Chi is also closely tied in with breathing techniques. A proficient practitioner of Tai Chi will no longer have to consciously control his breathing and match it with the movements of his body. Appropriate breathing will after some practice become second nature -a spiritual experience of communing with nature.
Hard as it may be to imagine, Tai Chi movements were intended as a means of combat and the movements or forms as they are called are geared to dislocate joints and cause internal bleeding in opponents. If Tai Chi were used as a dance routine then the benefits derived from it would be limited. To derive the maximum benefit from Tai Chi it should be approached as a martial art. Thereby deriving the attendant benefits of internal toughness and strength.
Although it is believed Tai Chi was first practiced in China in the 1820’s recent studies have shown that significant health benefits can still be derived from it. These include better balance and co-ordination (Of special importance to elderly people as this reduces falls and associated injuries), lowering of blood pressure and stress levels, strengthening of muscles and joints and improved cardiovascular health.
Given these benefits and its adaptability to suit many individual circumstances Tai Chi obviously has much to offer the health conscious individual in the 21st century.