Tai Chi emphasizes breathing and movement that are both flowing and graceful. Though its primary action is in the movement and breathing, this must all be carried out with particular mental focus during Tai Chi. This is why Tai Chi has often been referred to as "meditation in motion."
In theory, Tai Chi directly affects qi - the "vital energy" or "life force" of the body - where proper flow of qi is said to be necessary to maintain health. During Tai Chi, this energy flows through the body through a network of 20 pathways (meridians from acupuncture). When these pathways are blocked, qi does not flow properly, and in theory, illness ensues. Tai Chi is thought to stimulate this flow of qi through the body and organs through its movements and breathing. Tai Chi can be seen as acupuncture from the inside.
From a more scientific standpoint, Tai Chi is not unlike other forms of low-impact exercises; however, Tai Chi focuses more specifically on posture and alignment.
- Body alignment and posture in Tai Chi - Training the body to avoid slouching and rounding the shoulders through better posture and spinal alignment reduces stress on the components of the spine. Like other martial arts and exercises, correct form is emphasized through consistent training. Practicing Tai Chi may therefore reduce the practitioner's back pain through application.
Balance and coordination in Tai Chi - Transferring of weight from one leg to the other, while extending and retracting limbs, and flexing joints, plays a critical role in improving the balance of the practitioner. Tai Chi aids in enhancing the coordination of the practitioner by increasing proprioception - the body's automatic perception of movement and spatial orientation through interpreting signals from the muscles, joints, and connective tissues; "position sense."
A heightened position sense acquired through Tai Chi is helpful for preventing an accident that may lead to back pain. It also helps reduce aggravation of existing back pain by reducing awkward movements. There has been considerable evidence showing that Tai Chi practiced by the elderly greatly reduces the chances of falls.
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Tone and strength of muscles - As with any other form of physical exercise, Tai Chi provides practitioners with an overall toning and strengthening of specific muscles. The weight bearing aspects of the Tai Chi exercise have even been shown to stimulate bone growth, which may be beneficial to help prevent osteoporosis.
Many of the Tai Chi movements use the spine as a pivot point, gently flexing both the spine and the muscles around it back and forth and around. Through repetition of Tai Chi movements, the muscles around the spine, including the abdominals and hamstrings, strengthen and become more flexible, both of which are important to improve posture and reduce back pain.
- Releasing stress and anxiety - Deep, focused breathing in conjunction with related movements of the stomach, chest, diaphragm, and other parts of the body bring the mind into a meditative state. Tai Chi also intends for the practitioner to seek an "inner stillness" with a clear mind and focus. This type of Tai Chi action is thought to help release stress, and stress is a factor in causing and/or exacerbating many forms of back pain.