Tai chi is an increasingly popular system of gentle exercises that's credited with a host of health benefits. Barbara Taylor can attest to its power. She began practising tai chi 23 years ago at age 50, when she realized she was losing flexibility and was seeking relief from stress in both her personal life and work.

"I can say, without a doubt, that now at age 73, I am more flexible, mentally and physically, than when I began," says Taylor, who is head of the Fung Loy Kok Taoist Tai Chi Society's Toronto chapter. "I have more stamina, and feel young and vibrant. [Tai chi] has helped me manage my blood pressure without the use of drugs."

Tai chi is a highly choreographed series of deliberate, flowing movements that combines a sequence of postures and gentle movements with mental focus. It is a centuriesold practice originating in China that requires no heavy exertion, high-intensity aerobics or speed. Practised regularly, tai chi improves balance, muscle strength, circulation, range of motion and flexibility. Performing tai chi has helped people with a variety of ailments, including Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, fibromyalgia and heart disease. Tai chi improves immunity, aids relaxation and eases mood disorders such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress.

Anecdotal evidence of tai chi's benefits have been corroborated by research, including several studies done jointly by Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, as well as research by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

There are several forms of tai chi, and although the style may vary, all share common principles of integrating mental concentration with a series of body postures, each flowing in continuous motion to the next move and stimulating the flow of qi (a.k.a. ch'i), the life energy throughout the body. People of any age or fitness level can perform tai chi in some form.

"Tai chi is the most gentle, balanced and complete fullbody and mind exercise," says Justine Vo, acupuncturist, osteopath, dietitian and owner of CHR Health Clinic Inc. in Oakville, Ont. "It improves physical and mental health; it increases the flow of energy, oxygen, blood and other fluids throughout the body with slow, symmetrical movements. Tai chi helps relax the mind and clear the spirit in a manner similar to meditation."

Tai chi works differently from other forms of exercise, which can be more strenuous and involve long holding positions, extreme stretching, repetitive movements or focusing on only certain parts of the body, Vo says. If muscles and soft tissues have been injured, she says, more strenuous activities can aggravate injuries further, resulting in chronic conditions.

"When everything flows fluidly, all parts of the body are able to repair, rebuild and strengthen," Vo says. "Hence, physical and mental ailments will improve."

Tai chi involves a full range of motion, including turning of the hips and spine and extending the arms and legs. Even fingers are involved in the moves.

The sequence of 108 moves involved in Taoist tai chi were developed by a Taoist monk, Master Moy Lin Shin, based on techniques developed and passed on through thousands of years in China. After many years of training in China, he brought his methods to Toronto in the 1970s and the organization he launched has since expanded to 26 countries. Classes in various forms of tai chi are available at community centres, retirement homes and fitness clubs.

Taylor says she can do things now that she couldn't at 50, such as gardening all day, lifting heavy things and sitting cross-legged.

"My posture has changed and become more upright," she says. "When I worked, I suffered the effects of sitting all day at a desk, but tai chi has counteracted that."

Tim Butler, 81, discovered tai chi six years ago through a class offered at a local shopping mall in Toronto. He had been experiencing lower back pain and receiving chiropractic adjustments regularly for five years. Soon after he began performing tai chi, his back improved and he gave up the chiropractor.

"I hoped tai chi would loosen up my back and it did, but it did a lot more than that," says Butler. "I'm more focused, I feel stronger and I have better balance and posture."

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