At first glance, Tai Chi looks like you’re moving at a tortoise-pace, or someone accidently hit the slo-mo button, but take a closer look. It is more beneficial than it seems. Check out those bent knees and straight up-and-down spine; it’s like a constant squat, held for minutes at a time.
“Not all exercise needs to be explosive and leave you in a pool of sweat,” says Grant Jennings, a personal trainer who teaches a Chen-style Tai Chi class at the St. Clair location of Goodlife Fitness in Toronto.
“Don’t think of it as someone moving slowly, but like someone wringing out their body like a washcloth. Or someone pumping all the blood and lymph to their tissues and getting oxygen and nutrients into their blood and into their muscles.”
Check out the video below of Jennings performing the first five movements of Chen Zhao Kui Inner Family Big Frame Tai Chi, which he learned from Eric Tuttle at Wind Chases the Moon Martial Arts.
The defensive martial art
Sure, the misconception is that Tai Chi is for older people, but Jennings’ clients range in age from 20 to 80. And they are all benefitting in different ways from this martial art developed in the 1600s.
Remember that up-and-down spine? Try to keep that sense of verticality as you balance on one leg, slide on the ball of your foot across the floor, spiral your hands, create a relaxed fist or keep your body feeling loose but powerful at the same time.
Tai Chi is full of detail upon detail upon detail. Tall order, but easily learnable.
“The Chinese have a saying: Cobwebs don’t form in a busy doorway. Tai Chi is a full-body exercise where not just one part of the body moves, the whole body moves. The whole body is that doorway.”
Tai Chi is defensive, says Jennings. From its roots centuries ago as a way for Chinese peasants to protect their crops from marauders, studies have found that it — as well as being a good tool for self-defence — also enriches everyday life.
“It is learning to protect your body from a variety of attackers; whether they are germs and microbes, those attackers could be someone trying to take your wallet,” says Jennings. “For someone working to boost their immune system, there are lots of stories of people who take up Tai Chi practices and never getting a cold again.”
He adds it is good for removing tension, easing joint pain, increase circulation and cardiovascular benefits. Tai Chi can be done as a standalone exercise, or as part of a larger exercise plan that includes resistance training and cardio. For people who feel that they don’t have enough energy to work out, Tai Chi can give you that energy and help you get off the couch to enjoy more activity.
“It is one of the best cooldowns that you can be doing,” says Jennings. “During a workout, your cortisol levels will rise, and it can be a problem trying to develop muscles if those levels don’t come back down. This is where Tai Chi can help; it is a chance to rebalance the hormones and set your body up for rest and growth.”
Getting started: Outward Silk Reeling
“Silk reeling is like the vocabulary of Tai Chi,” says Jennings. The movements in this exercise are some of the basic “words” used in Tai Chi to create larger “sentences,” called forms. “It’s the entry point, it’s the playing around with words before you can make a sentence on your own.” This is also good as a warm up for other forms of exercise.
STEP ONE: Stand with your legs shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent. Place your hands mid-chest. With your palms facing left, keep your left hand above and slightly in front of your right hand.
STEP TWO: Turn your waist toward the left by putting your weight into your right leg. Then change position of your hands so the right hand is above and slightly in front of the left. Your palms should now be facing right.
STEP THREE: Now turn your waist toward the right, putting the weight into your left leg. Then switch your hands again so your left hand is on top and both palms are now facing left. Repeat the movements.
- TIP: You can start with your legs shoulder-width apart but can widen your stance as you get more used to the movement. You always want to keep your spine straight during this exercise. “You want to feel like the top of the skull is being pulled up by a cord from above, and the body is hanging down from the chord like a marionette,” says Jennings.
Stress buster: Big Regulation Breathing
Looking for a stress release you can do at the office? Big Regulation Breathing is a five movement Qigong exercise that shares a number of elements with Tai Chi and is good for helping to energize the body.
“This is working the body like a bellows to open up the breathing apparatus,” says Jennings. “People don’t breathe well, and that is because stress is held in the body and in the muscles, and when it is around the stress or neck, it restricts breathing.
“It is very accessible. I encourage people to take a look at how they are feeling, do three rounds of Big Regulation Breathing, and then take another look at how you are feeling. If you find yourself feeling more energized, relaxed or more focused – maybe a happy and healthy feeling in the body – this is what the exercise is supposed to create.”
BREATH 1: Stand with legs shoulder-width apart and legs slightly bent. Lift the hands toward the front and above the head while inhaling. Then, lower the hands to the sides and spiral the wrists three times while exhaling.
BREATH 2: Lift the hands toward the front and above the head while inhaling. Lower the hands to the side while exhaling.
BREATH 3: Lift the hands toward the sides and above the head while inhaling. Then drag the hands down in front of the body while exhaling. When the hands are at waist level, bend forward and squat, allowing the hands to swing past your legs.
BREATH 4: Allow your hands to drag against the floor as you stand back up and raise your arms above your head while inhaling. Then, lower your hands toward your chest and push your palms away from the body while exhaling.
BREATH 5: Cross your left arm over your right, inhale, and then pull elbows to the back. Press down and exhale.