If you walk past a park in Manhattan’s Chinatown or Lower East Side on any given morning, odds are you’ll spot someone shifting seemingly in slo-mo, in stark contrast to the surrounding hustle. This moving meditation—tai chi—is a Chinese martial art that’s been practiced for centuries. But its unique mind-body benefits have made it especially relevant over the past year: Stress levels have skyrocketed, and many of us have had to rethink our fitness routines without access to gyms or studios.
"It trains your body and your mind to cope with high stress levels and still be able to function at a high level."
A Brief History of Tai Chi
A form of Qigong, a broad term that applies to all Chinese energy work, tai chi was developed by Taoist monks as a way to harness energy for self-defense, explains David Melladew, L.Ac., The Hao Life’s Traditional Chinese Medicine advisor (who has studied martial arts for over 20 years). “If you notice, every movement is a strike, block, or kick. It’s just so peaceful you don’t realize it.” That’s exactly what makes it so powerful. Moving in concert with deep breaths and laser focus keeps your mind calm in the face of danger, “so you can perform at your peak,” says Melladew.
What the Research Says
Bu tai chi’s merits surpass its martial roots. Studies suggest it provides an array of positive effects, among them: supporting cardiovascular health, enhancing cognition, minimizing the symptoms of anxiety and depression, improving balance, and preventing falls. That last one is why it’s particularly helpful the older you get.
That said, there are clear advantages to starting early. “It trains your body and your mind to cope with high stress levels and still be able to function at a high level,” says Melladew. Instead of the stress of self-defense, though, it’s the stress of an impending deadline. Or a job interview. Or an inbox of 100 unread messages. (Or a global pandemic.) Take your pick.
How to Get Started
Tai chi requires very little to begin your practice. There’s no equipment needed—not even a mat. And you can easily find classes at a local martial arts studio or online. (Melladew recommends this one.) Once you’ve nailed the basics, the best way to experience it is unplugged and outside, amidst the hum of nature—or passing taxis.