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Originally published in New York Times by –

The mental and physical benefits span cultures and generations. Here’s how to get started.

“Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane.” “Wave Hands Like Clouds.” “Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain.” These are not song titles or poems. Rather, they’re the deceptively complex movements of tai chi.

With around 250 million practitioners around the globe, tai chi is often cited as one of the world’s most popular physical activities. It originated in China in the 17th century as a martial art. Unlike karate or taekwondo, tai chi focuses on quiet strength rather than combat, which makes it more accessible to older adults or those who have been injured.

Shirley Chock, 48, began practicing in her 20s, after she tore her A.C.L. She had previously trained in wushu kung fu, a more acrobatic martial art that caused the tear, but tai chi offered a low-impact way to rehab. The former financial professional, who was born in New York and spent her childhood in Taiwan, also found tai chi beneficial in managing stress and conflict. After about two years, she began teaching, and eventually took over Aiping Tai Chi, the Connecticut school where she had trained.

Since then, “the most common thing I have heard is older students saying, ‘If only I’d discovered this practice when I was younger,’” Ms. Chock said. Here’s what makes tai chi so useful, and how to get started with it when you’re ready.

Why practice tai chi?
Tai chi blends mental focus and physical effort to build strength, flexibility and mindfulness, said Peter Wayne, the director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and the author of “The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi.”

The poses are upright and less demanding than many in yoga, another mind-body practice. “Because tai chi evolved in terms of physical function and interaction, I think it translates better to everyday living activities, like lifting groceries, pushing doors open or catching things that fall,” Dr. Wayne said. Tai chi is also different from passive techniques like meditation because it pairs deep breathing and movement, which experts say helps you to calm your nervous system.

Research suggests tai chi can also improve balance and mobility, including in people with neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease. It also helps prevent falls in older adults. By strengthening surrounding muscles, tai chi also reduces strain on joints, said Dr. Amanda Sammut, the chief of rheumatology at Harlem Hospital and an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Columbia University.

For this reason, it’s recommended in guidelines for managing knee and hip osteoarthritis from the American College of Rheumatology. Studies also suggest two to three sessions per week may lead to improvements in depression, anxiety, psychological well-being and cognitive flexibility.

Depending on your fitness level, tai chi can be as aerobically challenging as a brisk walk of the same duration. The practice has few risks, but it’s still wise to consult your doctor if you have chronic health problems.

How do you get started?

The name tai chi refers to both the physical practice and the underlying philosophy of yin and yang — that there’s no good without bad, no dark without light, Ms. Chock said.

There are several styles — including Yang, Chen and Sun — named after prominent teachers or founders. “Although there are differences, there are many more commonalities,” Dr. Wayne said, and no scientific evidence that any one is superior. For beginners, Ms. Chock recommends the Yang style; it’s the most popular, so you’ll have many classes from which to choose.

No standardized certification exists for instructors, so Dr. Wayne suggests searching online for schools and classes. If you’re interested in understanding the philosophy, seek out those who’ve studied it in-depth rather than classes solely emphasizing fitness.

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