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Trying T'ai Chi for Health and Happiness

T'ai chi champion and trainer David-Dorian Ross extols the benefits of balance, stress relief and more

By David-Dorian Ross

We all know that dynamic good health depends in part on physical exercise. The human body was made for work, for movement. Our ancestors got their exercise through survival activities, like chasing down the wooly mammoth or plowing fields. In the modern world, however, most of our lives are too sedentary. Our work is in the office, not the field. So we need to add exercise to keep our bodies healthy.
The question is, what kind of exercise is best for you? Weight training for strength? Pilates for the abs? Yoga for flexibility? Or perhaps a mixture of several different kinds of exercise — what fitness professionals call cross-training.
(MORE: The Benefits of Quiet for Body, Mind and Spirit)

As it happens, there is a practice that delivers full-body exercise, enhancing strength and flexibility and more. It's also a system of self-defense, a shield against disease, a means of meditation and a beautiful dance. It is t'ai chi ch'uan and it is practiced by more than 3 million people in the United States and hundreds of millions more around the world.

T'ai chi devotees believe it is the ultimate exercise for body, mind and spirit. No matter your age, if you've ever considered trying this ancient Chinese martial art, now is the time. Here are three reasons why:
T'ai chi is phenomenal physical exercise. It builds lower body strength and flexibility while delivering a cardio workout. The upper body also gets great resistance training when you use the t'ai chi sword or weighted ball.

The greatest benefit of t'ai chi, however, is the way it hones your balance and coordination, making it a perfect complement to any other workout regimen you follow. No matter what your other sport is, practicing t'ai chi will make it better. Multiple studies have found that it helps to improve balance and reduce falls, making it especially valuable for the elderly or victims of a stroke.

And t'ai chi is one of the most accessible and easy-to-follow workouts you can do. The movements have a slow tempo, the workout is non-impact and it's simple to modify the steps to accommodate any fitness level. In this clip from my new PBS special, T'ai Chi, Health and Happiness, you'll see that if you can wave your hand, you can begin to do t'ai chi:

T'ai chi helps manage and relieve stress. Proper practice enables you to trigger what is known as the "relaxation response," a release of unconscious muscle tensions and a reversal of the stress hormones that contribute to our chronic "stress responses," like increased blood pressure and heart rate, shallow breathing and elevated cortisol levels. A recent Tufts University review of 40 studies concluded that t'ai chi "appears to be associated with improvements in psychological well-being, including reduced stress, anxiety, depression and mood disturbance, and increased self-esteem."


(MORE: 5 Ways to Sneak Exercise Into Your Daily Routine)

T'ai chi has a deeply metaphysical or philosophical side. The art of t'ai chi is based on ancient principles that not only teach you about fitness and self-defense, but also life itself. T'ai chi teaches you how to live in a very physical way. It demands that you balance your body, shows you how to do it and presents clear consequences of being unbalanced — you literally fall down. But t'ai chi is also a living philosophy, a blueprint for bringing the body, mind and spirit back into balance and living a life that brings happiness, fulfillment and that elusive spiritual goal, inner peace.

When life is in balance, everything works better. But that balance is really a happy side effect of t'ai chi. The greatest benefit is simply that it's fun. Traditionally, one does not say one practices t'ai chi, but that one plays t'ai chi.

It's time for you to start playing.

Click here to check your local listings for David-Dorian Ross' special, T'ai Chi, Health and Happiness.

David-Dorian Ross is a 7-time U.S. national champion and world silver medalist in the martial art of T'ai Chi Ch'uan, and the author of numerous books on the sport. He has starred in the PBS special "T’ai Chi, Health and Happiness" and the series "T'ai Chi in Paradise," and is the founder of T'ai Chi Fitness Instructor Training. Read More
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