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Centuries-old practice gains new followers.

The movement is slow, graceful, and fluid. The effort is almost undetectable. Most people are wearing street clothes, and no one has special shoes.

Could this really be exercise? Absolutely.

Tai Chi is a centuries-old Chinese practice designed to exercise the mind and body through a series of gentle, flowing postures that create a kind of synchronized dance.

Deeply rooted in Chinese meditation, medicine, and martial arts, tai chi (pronounced ''tie chee'') combines mental concentration with slow, controlled movements to focus the mind, challenge the body, and improve the flow of what the Chinese call ''qi'' (also spelled ''chi'') -- the life energy thought to sustain health and quiet the mind.

Found in many community centers, health clubs, and studios in the United States, tai chi is lauded for its gentleness and accessibility.

In fact, almost anyone can do it, even those with conditions that may exclude them from other forms of exercise, says Bill Douglas, tai chi teacher and founder of World Tai Chi & Qigong Day. Seniors, the overweight, and the arthritic can all participate.

Benefits of Tai Chi

The list of benefits that regular practice of Tai Chi can bring is long, according to advocates. It can improve strength, flexibility, balance, and coordination. Some research also suggests that tai chi may help to improve heart function and decrease blood pressure.

One of the most significant benefits is stress reduction, says Douglas, who lives and works outside Kansas City, Kan.

Stress is known to aggravate some health conditions, he says. And, according to some estimates, unmanaged stress could be costing U.S. businesses billions each year.

''If we provided tools like tai chi and qigong and other mind-body techniques through public education, every kid could be graduating high school as a tai chi or yoga master,'' Douglas says. ''This could conceivably save hundreds of billions of dollars, not once, but every year.''

Just learning to relax and breathe more deeply can be reason enough to take tai chi, says Warren D. Conner, founder of the T’ai Chi Ch’uan Study Center of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Area.

''You can take what you learn from the practice and transfer that to daily life,'' he says.

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