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The Exercise That Left Me More Relaxed Than I'd Been in a Long Time

Initially, I had been hesitant to try it.

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Mature woman doing tai chi outside on a nice day
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When I was Editor in Chief of Fitness magazine, I constantly told people to listen to their bodies when it came to exercise. But did I do that? Um, no.

I knew how to push myself, but slowing down even when my body was sending out help signals? Not so much. Fast forward a decade or so, and while I still love to work out — okay I don’t always love it but I love how it makes me feel — I no longer associate it with the popular expression “no pain, no gain."

I have enough past injuries, along with the normal aches and creakiness of getting older, to realize that I needed to find options that are not only gentle on my body but soothing for my mind, which has been racing lately. Anxiety? Check. Worry? Yup. Insomnia? Yes, again. Sound familiar?

For years, I’ve watched a group in my community gather outside in good weather, inside a glass-walled studio in colder months, and sway gently together, their arms moving through the air as if to music only they could hear. Their movements were slow, graceful and purposeful. When they were done, every single person looked content and relaxed. I didn’t know exactly what they were doing, but I knew I wanted some of whatever they were getting out of it.

It turns out they were practicing tai chi which, as cited in Tai Chi Health, “originated in China around the 13th century A.D. as a synthesis of martial arts exercise and sitting meditation. Taoist philosophy was integral to Chinese culture for thousands of years and naturally influenced the development of Tai Chi. Tao is translated as 'road' or 'path.' According to this perspective, living simply, being quiet and observant, and willing to move with the flow of things promote harmonious life.”

Along with other mind-body exercises including yoga and qigong, tai chi is a low-impact exercise and can be adjusted for a range of physical abilities and limitations, making these practices particularly suitable as we get older. A meta-analysis of studies published in 2019 in Ageing Research Reviews found that tai chi can help with frailty, balance, blood pressure and quality of life in people over 60.

The benefits don’t stop there. A 2021 study in Brain Science found that "mind-body exercise could improve and promote physical health as well as benefit mental health, including improving general cognition, executive function, learning, memory, and verbal fluency. Moreover, it aids in relieving stress anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions as well as enhancing the subjective well-being of an individual.”

That was enough to convince me to give tai chi a try.

I was admittedly apprehensive when I walked into my first class and discovered that I was the only newbie. On top of that, everyone else showed up in loose flowy clothes while I was wearing gym leggings and a Fitbit, ready for a speedy workout. The teacher, Laszlo, who is trained in martial arts, told me to relax. “You can’t mess this up,” he assured me.

We warmed up by rotating our shoulders, (snap, crackle, pop), and stretching our spines. After that, Laszlo demonstrated how to move across the floor by mindfully lifting one foot at a time, matching each movement to our inhalations and exhalations. “In, out,” he kept repeating. “Slower. Relax.”

To someone who came up doing step aerobics, this didn’t come naturally. But as I concentrated on my breath, my performance anxiety gradually gave way to a sense of calm. Nothing felt jarring or forced. There was no stress on my joints or my mind. The class ended with three short meditations, including one where we imagined ourselves in a cocoon of yellow healing light.

I walked out of the class more relaxed than I had been in a long time.

While I have done yoga on and off for years, I stopped going after finding myself in classes that were simply too hard. Tai chi reminded me of the sense of well-being yoga had once brought me. I signed up for a gentle yoga class and knew I was in the right place when the teacher, Andrea, instructed us to grab a blanket and a bolster (a large supporting cushion) for the session.

Rather than twisting us into pretzels, the entire focus was on easing into poses and holding them while we took deep, calming breaths. She demonstrated several options for people with various physical impairments as soft music played in the background.

The session ended with a meditation on gratitude. When I left, I found the simple stretches had slowed everything down, particularly my racing mind and usually rushed pace. Not only does yoga increase a sense of calm, flexibility and balance, (so important in preventing falls as we age), a 2018 study in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine found that just 12 sessions of hatha yoga reduced stress, anxiety and depression in women. (By the way, yoga is easy to adapt for those with mobility issues. Think chair yoga.)

I was less familiar with qigong. Hearing about it from friends and research, I learned this ancient practice from China that blends movement, visualization and breathing exercises is particularly beneficial for older women.

A study published in The Frontiers of Medicine found that "practices such as Tai Chi and Qigong that combine gait, balance, muscle strengthening, coordination and functional exercises, seem to have the greatest impact on balance among older adults. Additionally, these physical exercises reduce the risk of osteoporosis and increase fitness and bone density, thereby potentially reducing the severity of falls if and when they do occur.”

Learning to listen to my body and my mind has proved to be one of the best ways to reduce physical and mental stress. With my newfound foray into tai chi and a resolve to try qigong, I know I am off to a healthier (and calmer!) New Year.

Have any of you ever tried tai chi? How has it helped you? Let us know in the comments below.

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