What are Tai Chi and Chi Kung?

What’s with all those crazy Chinese people moving in slow motion in the parks? The Chinese have been practicing the slow ballet-like movements of tai chi chuan and its meditative sister art, chi kung, for over 300 years because of the wonderful sense of well-being it gives them. Tai chi is beneficial to the whole person, relaxing the mind as well as the body. If you do the exercises regularly, you will find that digestion, blood circulation and the functioning of the internal organs become more efficient. In addition, you will gain strength, balance, muscle tone, and a calm state of mind.
Tai Chi as slow motion exercise was developed from Chinese martial arts. Its movements, when mastered and executed with quick precision, can be an effective form of defense. However, the commonly seen exercises are designed to promote stillness, relaxation, and movement that is harmonized with breathing. There have been a number of studies that have shown that practicing tai chi can help reduce blood pressure, improve flexibility, mental focus and memory, and help reduce falls by increasing strength and balance.
The movements in tai chi follow a specific pattern and are arranged into short forms which can be done in five to fifteen minutes, or the more traditional long form which takes about 30 to 45 minutes to complete. A simple description of the movements is walking with lightness and awareness, coordinating the feet, waist and hands like the gears on a clock, and shifting the weight between the feet like a soft, rolling wave. The key, as with any exercise, is regularity, and it is best done daily. Tai chi also has several weapons forms, including a double edged sword form, which help increase coordination and focus, and has numerous sets of two-person exercises. Different types of tai chi were developed by different families several hundred years ago and bear the names of those family lineages.
Chi kung at its most simple is merely breathing in coordination with relaxing the body. It is similar to meditation, though its focus is on the body, allowing the muscles to relax and joints to open, thereby energizing and increasing blood flow. If you imagine your body as a system of garden hoses, chi kung is like mindfully scanning the system and removing any kinks. There are hundreds of types of chi kung which are usually done standing, but can easily be done sitting or lying down; some take only a few minutes while others can take up to an hour or more.
A Simple Lesson
To get an idea of what relaxation in chi gong is like, stand for just two minutes with your knees slightly bent, you shoulders relaxed and your breathing focused on an area jus below your navel. Let your belly expand and relax. Each time you breath out, maintain your structure, but allow your muscles to relax downward with gravity. As you breath out, tell your self, “Relax”, and then, “relax again”. For those two short minutes, you should keep your focus on what your muscles feel like as if they are melting from your bones onto the floor.
Most people don’t take time to relax and when they do, it is either with aerobic exercise or watching TV - one extreme or the other. Tai chi and chi gong allow the body and mind to work together to actually feel the body as it relaxes. The thoughts move away from stressful worries, and the body moves out of the sympathetic nervous system “fight or flight” mode that we tend to maintain from waking until we drop back into our beds. This type of involved relaxation allows more blood flow to the internal organs along with a gentle internal massage provided by the breath. The Chinese say that blood and energy flow where the mind is focused, so our focus is on the source of all health, our internal organs.
Tai Chi Chuan- pronounced “tie jee chwen”; also spelled t’ai chi ch’uan, taiji, or taijiquan; literally “Grand Ultimate Fist”
Chi Kung - pronounced “chee gong”; also spelled ch’i kung, chi gong, or qigong;
literally “energy/breath work”