Most longtime tai chi students began their journey by practicing simple tai chi exercises to heal an injury, improve their health, or restore a sense of mental balance. When asked why they started tai chi they say things like: “I have bad neck and back pain from work” or “I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and my doctor gave me your link.” It’s after initial health improvements that they take up tai chi as a practice.
Tai chi exercises are a series of movements designed to align posture and breath which allows a person to regain flexibility, reduce pain, improve one’s mental state, and contribute to healing. These individual exercises combine to create the tai chi forms that are practiced throughout the world.
For those of us searching for a tai chi exercise routine to fix or heal something, I wanted to create a list of the top reasons people begin tai chi. You can use this table of content below to jump down to the tai chi exercises that are specific to whatever you are dealing with. In each section I include tips on which exercises to do, how to modify them based on the injury, and videos and resources to get you started.
My goal is to give you some improvement, some reduction in pain, or some increase in mobility, so that you experience the benefits and become a practitioner. I look forward to meeting you at a workshop someday and hearing your tai chi origin story!
Quick Disclaimer: Part of the reason I am writing this is to dispel wrong notions that tai chi is like a miracle drug. Tai chi, when added to your doctor’s suggestions, can accelerate your results. Secondly, tai chi is 100% modifiable. It should never cause pain or fatigue that doesn’t go away after practicing. Tai chi exercises can be shortened, reduced, and even be performed seated until your stamina has improved.
What is Tai Chi Exercise and How is it Different From Aerobic Exercise
Tai chi exercises challenge us physically and improve our health just like calisthenics or other sports but the path to get there is completely opposite. A tai chi exercise routine relies on posture, deep breathing techniques, slow movements, alignment, timing, and concentration to not only improve your physical health but challenge you cognitively. The upright postures, mental focus and deep breathing also innervate your nervous system to improve your emotional well-being and outlook on life.
The Difference Between Tai Chi Exercise and Aerobic Exercise
|Tai Chi Exercise||Aerobic Exercise|
|Is a series of different tai chi exercises. A tai chi form can include 13-108 separate movements.||Repeats the same movement or sequence of movements.|
|Targets physical, mental, and emotional health.||Targets physical health and considers wellbeing a side benefit.|
|One activity (the form) can last 5-22 minutes.||One activity (the workout) can last 20-60 minutes, longer for some sports.|
|A class can last 1-4 hours.||A class is usually less than one hour.|
|Can be modified for any age or condition.||Often has age or health requirements.|
|Builds muscle through long, slow, deep movements or partner activities.||Builds muscle through quick movements or the use of weights.|
|Uses internal strength.||Uses external strength.|
|Based in philosophy, Chinese medicine, and several hundreds of years of development.||Based on physiology and kinesiology research primarily done in the 20th Century.|
This isn’t a comprehensive list but hopefully it paints a picture of something intrinsically different from your last visit to the gym or gym class. The goals of tai chi exercises are all-inclusive and intended to be a learning journey that will allow you to benefit from great health for a long time to come.
“It’s not how old you live to be but how healthy you are at the age you live.
Think of Tai Chi as Exercise With a Greater Purpose
A lot of us don’t see tai chi as exercise because of how different it may seem from the sports we grew up with. Exercise, as we define it typically, builds cardiovascular stamina and muscular strength. It is a workout with sweating, fatigue, and soreness afterwards. That doesn’t seem very tai chi-like does it?
The truth is that tai chi was born out of martial arts and while it can be tailored to be as slow and gentle as you want, it can also build strength and be physically demanding. This is one thing I love about it. People join tai chi all the time saying that they used to do a sport but can’t anymore. Usually they get injured or don’t have the stamina to do that sport. I have never heard a tai chi practitioner say that.
Not only are tai chi exercises modifiable for every single person, they are modifiable across the ages so you can continue to do it forever. I know, nothing is forever, but you can move from deep stances to high stances to sitting in a chair. With so much to learn, a tai chi exercise program never has an end. Let’s start by talking about how to warm up and then focus on how to modify the techniques of tai chi based on the different medical conditions.
Tai Chi Warm Up Exercises
A warm-up is just stretching to get ready for the good stuff, right? Make sure we don’t get injured? Catch up with our friends before class starts? Not so with tai chi. First of all, you don’t get injured with tai chi, and it is unto itself a social event. Tai chi warm up exercises teach new, safe patterns of movements that balance us, ground us to the floor, release synovial fluid into our joints, and increase our breath capacity so that we get so much more health, wellness, and strength out of the form.
If you don’t have a tai chi warm up exercise, I share our routine here in When Do We Get to the Good Stuff?
Tai Chi Exercises For Balance
Tai chi balance exercises are really successful at reducing falls4 and restoring mobility because of how they treat posture alignment, how they coordinate breathing with movement, and how they teach walking. I don’t know of too many other sports that specifically focus on balance.
Posture alignment: At every instance during standing meditation, walking, and the form, you are simultaneously pushing up through the crown of the head and down through the tailbone. This creates the beautiful upright postures that tai chi is famous for. It also has the benefit of centering you so that you don’t compromise your balance.
Walking: Stepping drills are some of the best tai chi exercises for balance. Whereas most of us walk by leaning forward and shifting our balance to land on the forward leg, tai chi moves the empty foot forward and then transfers weight onto it.
Single-leg postures: Tai chi employs many single-leg postures which cause the body’s proprioception to specifically focus on balance.
What we learn in tai chi is directly transferable to the world around us. Here is a nice video on tai chi balance exercises. A cued up a teaching segment on going up stairs but the entire video is good.
Research on Tai Chi Exercises for Parkinson’s Disease
There is good news for people suffering from Parkinson’s. This disease compromises stability and balance but at the same time makes many sporting activities difficult. I want to share two new research studies showing positive gains made by people who have Parkinson’s. If this is you, these are studies that should be shared with your doctor.
This study found positive results in improving balance and reducing falls when compared to a control group that had no intervention. I like the direction that the study went but I imagine that any intervention is better than no intervention. This next study compared tai chi to other activities.
In this study they tested out tai chi exercises for Parkinson’s Disease against resistance training and stretching exercises. Tai chi out-performed the other two activities in specific measures and surpassed stretching in reducing falls.
Tai Chi Exercise For Knee Pain
Tai chi exercises for knee pain have kind of a peculiar reputation. A ton of people have alleviated knee pain and others say that their knee pain got worse from doing tai chi. Tai chi, when taught and performed correctly, is great for knee pain because it teaches us how to:
- Properly align the knee with the toe so as not to torque the knee
- Keep the knee cap behind the toe to elevate pain across the front of the knee or patella
When people are overweight, the pressure on the knees is increased so correct posture and walking as mentioned above also helps to return health to the knees. If you are hoping tai chi will help with knee pain, you can read about knee exercises more in depth.
Tai Chi Exercises for Back Pain
Fully a third of adults in the United States have back pain1 with 540 million people around the world reporting that they have experienced back pain during their lifetime2.
With the three most common treatments being surgery, drugs, or spinal injections, it’s no wonder that people are looking to use tai chi exercises for back pain. On a personal note, this is part of my healing journey and I wrote about how tai chi exercises played a pivotal role in healing my lower back pain.
Tai chi exercises are just a part of the equation but have a tremendous impact on reducing back pain. To understand this, we need to think about the mechanisms that lead to back pain in the first place. The reality is that there are several types of back pain including impinged discs, deteriorated discs, pain from posture issues, one-sided issues from hip problems or curvature.
In all instances we can benefit from better posture, elongation of the spine, strengthening of stabilizer muscles, and strengthening of abdominal muscles. You can use tai chi exercises for back pain to not just “relieve” it, but fix the cause.
It should be noted that at the time of writing, I wasn’t able to find any specific studies linking the benefit of using tai chi exercises for sciatica. Considering that improved core stability and posture are benefits of tai chi, the research might be right around the corner.
Tai Chi Exercises for Fibromyalgia
I have a student who attends our class because of Fibromyalgia. It’s an incredibly debilitating disease that results in pain throughout the body, fatigue, insomnia, and depression.3 It’s debilitating in the truest sense because the one main thing proven to alleviate the symptoms is movement and light exercise (CDC). And, who wants to exercise when they’re tired, sleep deprived, and in pain?
My heart goes out to anyone with this diagnosis because it is so complicated to treat. Based on my student’s progress though, I know that using tai chi exercises for Fibromyalgia is a safe and successful bet. She does every exercise except for qigong movements that have her bending way over. However she modifies everything in two specific ways: her tai chi exercise routine reduces the time, repetitions, and modifies activities to be in a chair. Here’s what it looks like:
- During qigong, we do each movement nine times. She does 4-7.
- For all activities where the hands are being raised above the head, she sits down.
- She begins the form with us, keeping a high posture. At the point she starts to feel tired, she sits down.
- When we break into groups to work on sections, she sits during the discussions and questions and then joins in on the practice.
Tai Chi Exercises for High Blood Pressure
In a workshop with Grand Master Chen Youze he was asked, in a rather pointed way I might add, why anyone would do tai chi rather than cardio or running for fitness, or boxing or other martial arts for fighting. He acknowledged the benefits of the other activities but said that tai chi is unique in that it doesn’t stress the heart.
The trouble with challenging a master in a Western way is that they believe you really want an answer and the “only way to truly know is to experience.”
You can sweat and build leg strength with standing meditation, he said. Which began an excruciating session of Zhan Zhuang standing where we were quivering and sweating by the end.
You can build arm, chest, and back strength through push hands and silk reeling, he shared. And within a few minutes everyone’s shoulders were burning and we needed a break.
Through it all, because of the slow movements with proper posture, no one was out of breath. Anyone can easily use tai chi exercises for high blood pressure because it doesn’t stress the heart. For people who are not in the greatest of shape or who are just starting to exercise, a tai chi exercise program can get you up and running without injury. High blood pressure does not necessitate any specific changes to tai chi that you wouldn’t make to any exercise you are starting. If you have high blood pressure, work at a level that is appropriate for you. CDC suggestions include 30 minutes a day for 3-5 days each week.
Tai Chi Exercises for Neck Pain
The tai chi form helps with neck pain but this is one ailment that also benefits from individual tai chi exercises that directly target neck pain. Neck pain is reduced by returning a full range of movement and also by gaining movement in the shoulder girdle and chest. Tai chi uses exercises called silk reeling to teach specific movements that aid in performing the form better. There are exactly the same movements to target in order to get a specific area of the body moving and pain free again.
Here is an example of how to use silk reeling tai chi exercises for neck pain.