Tai Chi: An Old Art For Modern Disease

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Tai chi chuan, often shortened to tai chi, has garnered a lot of attention in recent years. The centuries-old mind-body practice involves slow, coordinated movements coupled with breathing exercises.

Originally developed as a method of self-defense in the East, tai chi has been gaining recognition in the West for its therapeutic effects. In fact, interest in tai chi’s health benefits has exploded, with more than 1,000 publications on the practice since 2000.

A Popular Practice

According to the National Health Interview Survey, tai chi was one of only five complementary health practices that experienced an uptick in usage between 2002 and 2012. Yet, for many, this moving meditation is still somewhat shrouded in mystery.

Here, Zeyiad Elias, DAOM, RAc, a practitioner of acupuncture and Oriental medicine at the Henry Ford Center for Integrative Medicine and an avid martial artist, sheds light on the ancient practice and answers frequent questions about its influence on the wellness world.

Q: Where did tai chi originate?

A: Tai chi’s mythology traces back to the 12th century as a martial art created by a Daoist monk named Zhang Sanfeng. Sanfeng reportedly lived for more than 200 years and created tai chi after observing a snake and bird in combat. The earliest documented evidence of the practice dates back to the 17th century, when military commander Chen Wangting’s teachings expanded tai chi to several different styles.

Q: What are the health benefits?

A: The health benefits of tai chi are many, and evidence of its impact on wellness continues to grow. Research has found positive effects, both physically and mentally, for a variety of conditions, including pain, stress and emotional disorders. Among the top health perks:

  • Improved balance and fall prevention
  • Increased muscle strength
  • Enhanced focus
  • Relief from osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia pain
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Lower risk of depression and anxiety
  • Improvement in symptoms of chronic diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Q: Who can practice tai chi?

A: People often view tai chi as exercise for the elderly. But anyone, regardless of age or limitations, can practice tai chi. The sequence of movements, or forms, can be tailored to your needs (seated forms versus standing forms, for example) and you can gradually progress at your own pace. When guided by an appropriate instructor, tai chi is a safe exercise for almost anybody.

Q: What is a tai chi class like?

A: In general, tai chi classes are friendly and welcoming. They’re often comprised of like-minded people who have similar health goals. While some class structures are suited especially for beginners, others include a mix of students with varying degrees of experience. Classes include a range of forms, meditation and breathing exercises – some performed solo and others with a partner. The instructor will demonstrate the various movements as the class follows along and recommends any necessary adjustments to your posture and body mechanics.

Finding a tai chi instructor and class is a personal process. There are many styles and approaches to tai chi, and it is important to find the best fit for your needs. Searching for a tai chi class? Use these four guidelines to find the right fit:

  1. Determine your tai chi goals. Do you wish to practice for your health, self-defense or both? Make this clear to prospective instructors since classes may emphasize one application over the other.
  2. Consider the instructor’s credentials and experience based on your needs. How did they learn tai chi, how long have they been doing it, and how did they learn to teach it?
  3. How is the personal dynamic and chemistry with the instructor upon meeting them?
  4. Ask to participate in a complimentary class. Most schools or programs provide this option, so take advantage of it. It will provide you an opportunity to meet other students, observe the instructor’s teaching style and get an overall sense of the atmosphere. To find a starting point, visit americantaichi.org

No matter what your age or fitness ability, it makes sense to explore practices that nourish mind, body and spirit.


If you’re interested in trying tai chi, classes are available at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital on select Friday afternoons this summer for just $5 per session. Call (248) 325-3194 or email dkaplan1@hfhs.org for details.

You can also read more wellness advice in our FeelWell section, so subscribe to get all the latest tips.

Zeyiad Elias is a doctor of acupuncture and Oriental medicine with the Henry Ford Center for Integrative Medicine. He sees patients in our Southfield and Dearborn locations and the Henry Ford QuickCare Clinic and the William Clay Ford Center for Athletic Medicine in Detroit.

Categories: MoveWell

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