HEALTHY LIVING: An introduction to tai chi for relaxation

Tai chi is an ancient Chinese martial art that has become increasingly popular for its meditative and physiological benefits. Adapted from its original form as a method of self-defense for Taoist monks, tai chi is widely practiced as a low-impact exercise.

I recently met with martial arts expert and tai chi instructor George Donahue at the Wallingford YMCA to learn more about this transformative method of movement.

Yang and Chen style are among the most physically demanding forms of tai chi, according to Donahue. Sun style, the form of tai chi that is most commonly offered at local gyms, is more therapeutic and appeals to the masses.

Tai chi is an art of balance, expressed through body and mind. Donahue said the more skilled you become at tai chi, the more slowly you will go through the motions.

He also said no part of the body is meant to be overextended in any pose. All of the extremities transition gently through the sequence of movements, aided by deep and purposeful breathing.

The maneuvers of tai chi are made to be completed in a particular sequence. They involve the harnessing of chi, or vital energy, by using mindful breathing techniques. Practicing tai chi involves spreading the fingers wide, similar to holding an imaginary ball. Then you expand the hands with each breath in, drawing them softly together upon exhalation.

Donahue also described a sequence he refers to as “bathroom mirror tai chi,” which involves a few simple movements that can be completed in the confined space of a bathroom, perhaps in conjunction with other morning rituals.

This sequence involves many symmetrical maneuvers completed on both sides of the body.

Having Taoist origins, a common theme in tai chi is nature. Many poses are likened to that of natural phenomena such as “waving hands like clouds” which differs from form to form.

For Sun style, the fingers are swept softly across the body. Donahue explained that in Chen style, this would be a more abrasive motion, akin to “thunderclouds” covering the sky.

As one of the most studied physical activities, there is a plethora of scientific evidence supporting tai chi as a means to reduce stress, regulate breathing, and enhance athletic performance.

Anyone can practice this martial art, including children and those with limited mobility.

Donahue characterized tai chi as “Moving meditation … [with] every element you need to develop balance, strength, serenity, and mindfulness.”

You can find tai chi classes offered at your local YMCA or martial arts studio. Donahue teaches tai chi at the Y’s Wallingford, Meriden, and New Britain locations, as well as at nursing homes.

Donahue has written articles for on various forms of martial arts.

Kristen Dearborn is a Wallingford resident, NASM-certified personal trainer and author of the blog dearfitkris –

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