Physical fitness is not immune to trend-chasing. Every month, it seems, a hot new workout or discipline emerges as the must-do activity for achieving true wellness — complete with the clothes, equipment and/or memberships that go along with it.
But sometimes it makes more sense to return to the classics — those longstanding benchmarks that have proven reliable and resilient and, in many cases, have likely inspired many of the latest fad workouts.
Take tai chi, an ancient and inclusive martial art and exercise technique that has stood the test of time. Long valued for its physical and mental/spiritual benefits in equal measure, it is a practice that can be scaled to work for everyone from young children to senior citizens, helping reduce stress, improve balance, aid concentration, inspire meditation, relieve pain and promote ease of movement.
For Phil Simcich, one of the hallmarks of tai chi is its inclusiveness. Tai chi, he believes, is open to anyone willing to have the patience and discipline to allow it to work.
“Anyone can do tai chi,” says Simcich, who has been practicing tai chi since 1995 and teaching it at East Wind Studios in Chesterton since 2018. “Even those with limited range of motion or cognitive challenges can benefit from following along and doing their best, but it takes time, dedication and active interest to get good at it. People who want quick results may find the slow pace frustrating, but those who are willing to approach it with a clear mind, a bit of patience and a sense of inquisitiveness will derive the most benefit from it.”
While most tai chi consists of a series of fairly simple movements that can be practiced as a self-guided individual discipline, Simcich says an instructor in a group setting can help students learn the hidden details of those movements and get the most out of their time.
Fitness Pointe specialty instructor Andy Wichlinski agrees, and notes that a group setting can provide yet another benefit for participants — a sense of camaraderie.
“Tai chi can be a great way to supplement your physical health and well-being,” Wichlinski says, likening the practice to moving meditation. “And finding a group online is probably the easiest way to get started.”
For those who prefer to practice tai chi on their own, however, the safety and relative simplicity of most of the basic moves make it an excellent fitness option. Simcich recommends anyone looking to get started on their own focus on the bookend movements in any tai chi form — the “opening” and “closing” — which he says are the foundation on which everything else in tai chi is built:
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, firmly planted and weight evenly distributed. Legs should be straight but knees should not be locked, tailbone should be sunk slightly and hips should be folded just a bit. The stomach should not be tense, the chest should not be puffed-out as though standing at attention and the shoulders should be neither thrown back nor slumped. The arms should hang naturally, and the head and eyes should be level. The whole body should feel relaxed as though it’s suspended from the top of the head like a marionette, and the mind should be calm but “quietly aware.”
Begin the movement by breathing from the lower abdomen, filling the lungs from the bottom up. As you breathe in, raise your arms to chest height. Inside, it should feel as though the center of gravity raises slightly – from just below the navel to just above it. As you exhale, lower the hands with a gentle pressing motion, as though you were pushing pillows into a storage tote. Internally, it should feel as though the center of gravity now sinks back down below the navel, and there should be a feeling of solidness and steadiness in the legs.
“Repeating this movement as a standalone exercise, with a clear mind and concentrating on how you feel inside, leads to a sense of calm and increased awareness of posture and balance,” Simcich says.
Wichlinski recommends “push hands” as an easy beginning form for tai chi novices.
Start by standing with feet apart and hands in front of shoulders, palms out. Inhale first, and as you exhale deeply push your hands straight forward from your shoulders. At the same time, bend the knees slightly and stop the forward push before the elbows lock. Next, exhale and drop hands back down to your belly and then back up to shoulders as you straighten your knees.
As one attempting either of these basic moves can sense, tai chi may not be a particularly strenuous workout in the realm of HIIT and CrossFit, but it does hold the promise of physical and mental wellness for those with the patience to see it through.
“The biggest challenges in tai chi — the concentration, the patience and the self-discipline necessary to do it well and stay with it over time — just happen to be its biggest benefits,” Simcich says.