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Tai Chi Exercises Both Mind and Body

Centuries-old practice gains new followers.

The Body and the Mind

In tai chi, both the mind and the body are constantly challenged. It is hard to say which benefits more, say experts.

''Initially, benefits are physical,'' says Conner. ''For learning purposes, you start with the body. You learn a set series of movements, all in the same order, and you have to pay attention. When you pay attention, you purchase awareness.''

Santa Fe tai chi instructor Robin Johnson says it’s more like thinking of the two as one.

''Tai chi (and qigong) demonstrate how inextricably interwoven the mental and physical body is,'' says Douglas, author of Stalking the Yang Lu-Chan: Finding Your Tai Chi Body. ''Your mood, your emotional states, and your physical states are all beginning to improve at the same time.''

Practicing tai chi also helps to counteract the repetitiveness of our jobs and daily routines, where our bodies move only in limited ways, Johnson says.

''Sitting in front of a computer all day abuses the body,'' says Johnson. ''We’re not using our body’s versatility. Like a hinge, if you don’t use it, it gets sticky and stuck.''

Super for Seniors

Of course, aging also takes a toll on our bodies. Over time, strength lessens, elasticity fades, joint mobility decreases. Because balance is compromised as well, the likelihood of falling increases with age. In fact, falls are the leading cause of injuries in older adults.

Because tai chi often involves shifting weight from one leg to the other, it can increase both balance and leg strength in older adults.

''Tai chi is the best balance conditioning exercise in the world,'' says Douglas. ''And if tai chi can cut falls in half, that’s a pretty profound thing.''

A 2001 study conducted by the Oregon Research Institute in Eugene, reported that seniors who took Tai Chi classes for an hour twice a week reported having an easier time with activities like walking, climbing, bending, lifting, eating, and dressing than their peers who did not participate in the classes.

Tai Chi and Weight

Because tai chi is low impact, experts say, it's a good choice for people carrying extra weight, who often have knee and hip limitations. If you can’t walk or do traditional exercise without pain, tai chi may be gentle enough to get you moving. And with regular practice, they say, you will begin to burn calories and lose weight.

Johnson says tai chi also speaks to the mental aspect of being overweight.

When you're overeating and not moving enough, your body becomes stressed, he says. Practicing tai chi gets you in touch with your body and makes you more aware of its needs.

''If our body becomes more centered,'' says Johnson, ''we don’t need to be compulsively consuming food.''

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