Photo: Unsplash/Mark So.

William Leclair had much to celebrate when he approached his 55th birthday three years ago. The Toronto-based communications specialist was fulfilled in his career, proud of his family and he took delight in his circle of close longtime friends. “All things considered, I was in a happy place in my life,” says Leclair.

What he did not celebrate was the increasing stiffness in his lower legs and upper arms (“an unwelcome byproduct of 25 years sitting in front of a computer,” he says.) “On top of that, my doctor read me the riot act at my annual physical that year about my blood pressure. My GP didn’t mince words: ‘If it gets any higher we’ll have to discuss a medication regimen.’ And I didn’t want that.”

“I had to do something,” says Leclair, “I just didn’t know what. I eschewed fitness centres and jogging wasn’t my thing.” The answer presented itself one September afternoon when he cut through a downtown park on his way to a meeting. He noticed a group of people practising what looked to him like “a standing form of rhythmic yoga, of slow, determined moves and stretches. It looked so peaceful.” That’s how he discovered Taoist Tai Chi. A week later, he attended a drop-in class for beginners and he’s never looked back.

Practitioners of tai chi find its slow, careful movements improve mood, lessen anxiety and boost overall well-being. Photo: WikiCommons.

What is tai chi?

Tai chi is an ancient Chinese discipline involving a continuous series of controlled, usually slow, movements aimed to improve physical and mental well-being. The rhythmic expansion, contraction and turning motions of the tai chi set are designed to relax tension points in the body and permit free movement of “chi” (the vital life force or energy that flows through the body), resulting in a general increase in energy and vitality.

Various traditions of tai chi – which has spread widely throughout North America and Europe in the last 25 years – have evolved over time. The most popular in Canada is Taoist Tai Chi, developed by Taoist monk Moy Lin-shin. It consists of 108 low-impact, slow motion exercises with names like Grasp Bird’s Tail, Single Whip and White Stork Spreads Wings. Deep breathing and focused attention accompany each movement, sometimes called motions, which are typically circular and unforced.

Medication in motion’

The Harvard Medical School team coined an apt expression:Tai chi is often described as ‘meditation in motion,’ but it might well be called ‘medication in motion.’” Peter M. Wayne, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Tai Chi and Mind-Body Research Program at Harvard Medical School’s Osher Research Center, said: “A growing body of carefully conducted research is building a compelling case for tai chi as an adjunct to standard medical treatment for the prevention and rehabilitation of many conditions commonly associated with age.”

The respected medical school has even published an easy-to-follow manual, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi: 12 Weeks to a Healthy Body, Strong Heart and Sharp Mind.

And there’s good news for Leclair who was originally worried about stiffness in his legs and upper arms. “Although you aren’t working with weights or resistance bands, the unsupported arm exercise involved in tai chi strengthens your upper body,” reports Dr. Gloria Yeh, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. “Tai chi strengthens both the lower and upper extremities and also the core muscles of the back and abdomen.”

“There’s something empowering in the choreography of 25 or more people doing the complete tai chi set together.”

In 2016, Ontario physicians Dr. Patricia Huston and Dr. Bruce McFarlane, both of them enthusiasts of Taoist tai chi, analyzed 500 trials and 120 systematic reviews of studies on the benefits of tai chi. Their findings were promising: “Systematic reviews of tai chi for specific conditions indicate excellent evidence of benefit for preventing falls, osteoarthritis, Parkinson disease, rehabilitation for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and improving cognitive capacity in older adults. There is good evidence of benefit for depression, cardiac and stroke rehabilitation, and dementia.”

Tai chi has also been found to boost balance and stability. As reported in the American Journal of Public Health, a study conducted by a public health centre in Oregon on the effects of tai chi on participants in 36 senior centres across the state observed a 50 percent decrease in fall rates among the elderly participants.

Tai chi practitioners have also reported improved cardio rates, decreased anxiety, greater flexibility in all limbs, and less lower-back pain, among other benefits. Of course, much more scientific research is required. Also of note: In Ontario, the Taoist Tai Chi organization offers weekly tai chi classes for those living with Parkinson’s disease.

Tai chi has become a twice-weekly practice for Leclair, whose blood pressure is now under control and muscle stiffness a thing of the past. “I could practice tai chi at home, but I prefer group practice at my local Taoist tai chi branch,” he says. “There’s something empowering in the choreography of 25 or more people doing the complete tai chi set together. While tai chi is a peaceful practice, I can’t help but feel I’ve ‘conquered’ something huge when I complete the set. I’m proud that I’ve achieved something for me, for my body, for my peace of mind.”

To find a Taoist Tai Chi class, visit https://www.taoist.org/find-a-class/