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In today’s frenzied, distracted world, as we frantically multitask and try to squeeze ever more into our days, it seems counter-cultural to intentionally s-l-o-w down and breathe. But that’s part of the attraction of both qigong and tai chi, ancient Chinese disciplines that continue to grow in popularity in the West.
“Moving slow is one of the most wonderful things on earth. It’s very meditative, and it opens your mind,” explains Joan Severson, who teaches tai chi at UW Health Sports Medicine’s Fitness Center.
In Chinese medicine, qigong (pronounced “chee gong”) is thought to cultivate qi, or life force. “Qigong is connecting the breath with certain body movements, and it’s very relaxing because it’s repetitive,” says Severson, who incorporates qigong into the beginning and end of her tai chi classes. “You might do five movements in rhythm with the in breath and out breath. It’s very easy for people to learn and do.”
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Using visualization, qigong practitioners focus on directing their energy through certain parts of the body, “making our life force stronger from the inside out,” Severson says. “You can move in a particular way that directs qi toward certain organs, like the kidneys, for example.”
Tai chi also involves slow, relaxing movements and mind-body coordination, but it began as a form of martial art. “Today it’s popular for balance and body awareness,” she says. “As you tune into your body, you have more control.”
Tai chi students learn forms, which are series of movements with names such as “White Crane Spreads Its Wings.” It looks easier than it is, at least in the beginning, Severson notes. “You can memorize a form, then work on proper body alignment as you move through the form,” she says. “It’s not for everybody, but if you’re a lifelong learner, tai chi can really be a lot of fun.”
There are also physical benefits. With regular practice, tai chi can promote deeper, more efficient breathing; improve balance (and thus help prevent falls); strengthen bones because of the weight-bearing movements; and increase body strength, particularly in the lower body, Severson says.
The relaxation element can help lower blood pressure and ease pain, which is especially good for patients with arthritis. “For arthritis, one important benefit of tai chi is the relaxation, then the lubrication of joints, putting the body in proper alignment and moving softly and fluidly from the core. That’s going to help you relax and feel better,” she says.
How to Find the Right Tai Chi or Qigong Class for You
Interested in trying qigong or tai chi? Severson shares these tips:
Consider the right class for you. There are actually five different styles of tai chi. “Yang is the most popular tai chi style in the United States and also has the most research behind it,” she explains. “Sun style is great for older adults because it’s more upright; you don’t have to sweep all the way to the ground.” UW Health also offers tai chi classes geared toward many different abilities.
Just try it. “Starting is the most important part,” she says. The beauty of these slow exercises is that they can be done by people of all ages and fitness levels.
Give it time. “Tai chi is like peeling an onion,” she explains. “It can take a year to just learn the form, and then once you have it memorized you can add the breath and the relaxation, because the whole point is to take tension away, relax and enjoy it. Initially it becomes a very busy mind activity, trying to figure out the movements. People get frustrated, but just be patient.”
Focus on yourself. Stay present instead of worrying about what the person next to you is doing; everyone’s body is different.
Keep learning. After you master one form, keep going and appreciate the variations in the movements. “One of the most common movements is called Cloud Hands, which will be in just about every tai chi form, but Cloud Hands will be different in each form,” Severson explains. “It’s always going to be a very slow, deliberate movement, but it might have four or five different looks depending on the form. For me, that’s part of the fun of learning a new form.”
Practice, practice, practice. If you really want to make progress, it’s not enough to just attend class once a week. “You should incorporate practice into your daily routine,” Severson says. “Do what you can do, even if it’s just a few minutes a day.”