fitness and biomechanical health
Many people have a misguided view of Taijiquan, believing it is not a challenging form of exercise. This could not be further from the truth, as when practiced correctly it is very physically demanding and mentally challenging, yet at the same time deeply healing for the body and mind.
balance, coordination, and posture
Many of us have a less than ideal posture, and this is often due to unconscious muscular tension that literally pulls our body out of its optimal alignment. It is this that is the main cause of much back, neck and joint pain and degeneration, and also loss of mobility. Practicing Taijiquan gradually increases one's level of proprioception, so there is a better inner awareness of how the body is being held, and how the diffferent parts of the body are related to one another in a biomechanical sense. At the same time, the unconscious muscular tension starts to become more conscious, and then it can be allowed to subside, and the body can 'fall' back into a better alignment.
Weight is transferred through the skeleton in an efficient way, through the bones and down to the ground. This causes increased bone density and health but without the impact that can damage joints.
The twining, coiling and spiralling motions that characterise Chen Taijiquan are much more natural than the linear motions of, for example, many gym exercises. Rather than isolating muscles, in Taijiquan the aim is to utilise and activate the whole body, with all major muscle groups being relaxed yet activated simultaneously.
This is also much more challenging in terms of coordination, as it requires a simultaneous awareness of what many different parts of the body are doing. With practice however, this results in a more relaxed body, better more natural posture, improved balance, and a more graceful way of moving. The whole body working in harmony, moving in unity.
cardiovascular and pulmonary
The first way that Taijiquan improves cardiovascualr performance is by controlling the breathing. In Taijiquan practice the breathing is kept deep and long, which means a large surface area of the lung is being used for oxygen exchange. This means it's possible to exercise at a higher intensity without getting short of breath. This also allows the heart rate to remain at a slightly lower level, thus not straining the heart.
There are also training systems to develop the lung capacity. These include the Cannon Fist form, as well as the halberd and long pole (see below).
The expansive stretching and simultaneous relaxation throughout the body when practicing Taijiquan also improves blood flow and opens up the arteries and capillaries, improving cellular respiration throughout the body
Taijiquan is great for increasing stamina. Zhan Zhuang (standing meditation) looks easy but is in fact very physically demanding, and at first practitioners may experience significant muscle fatigue and trembling after only a couple of minutes. It is a process of physical conditioning, both increasing the stamina of the muscles and also learning to use muscles in a much more efficient way.
The form also develops a lot of muscle stamina. Taijiquan trains the muscles in a number of different ways. During the slow movements, all muscles are constantly activated at a low level. While during the explosive movements there are short periods of intense activation.
flexibility and joint health
The movements of Chen style Taijiquan simultaneously stretch and strengthen the joints.
All the movements are twisting, coiling, and spiralling. These circular movements mean the joints are moved through a full range of natural motion, which supports increased mobility and blood flow. The tendons within the joints are also gently stretched, which again supports joint health by encouraging suppleness and avoiding rigidity in the joint.
Chen Taijiquan is low impact, so the joints are not put under undue shock and strain caused by the jolting pressures of high impact exercise. The movements do naturally challenge the joints though, and with continued practice joints will become extremely strong and supple.
In the long run, the gentle elongation of the tendons that Taijiquan practice brings can dramatically slow the rate at which mobility and range of motion in the body is lost through aging.
It may seem counterintuitive, given that Taijiquan is very focused on relaxation, but it is also a practice that develops significant strength and power. It is extremely demanding for the legs, and additional muscle mass is developed rapidly in new paractitioners. Anytime somebody wants to burn more calories and develop more strength, they can simply train in lower postures.
The postures in the form and standing meditation, holding the arms out and extended, develop the muscles of the trunk, back, and shoulders.
halberd and long pole
Chen style Taijiquan also has two traditional training apparatus that are excellent for developing whole body strength and power, these being the halberd (Guan Dao) and the long pole, which is a three metre long wooden pole.
While these are slightly more advanced training tools and practices, then are excellent for both strength and cardiovascular training.
a personal perspective
Taijiquan takes a very different approach to fitness when compared with western exercise systems. The breathing is maintained in deep, slow diaphragmatic breath, rather than becoming shallow and short. This keeps the heart rate lower, putting less strain on the heart. Lots of heat is produced, but without the short breathing normally associated with strenuous exercise.
I practiced Capoeira for 10 years, which is also an excellent form of exercise, and more cardiovascular in the traditional sense than Taijiquan. It is also good for developing the musculature of both the lower and upper body. So I was intrigued to see how my strength and fitness held up when Taijiquan became my only significant and regular exercise regime. So far I can say that both in terms of strength and stamina I feel at least as fit and strong as before, if not more so.
Since starting Taijiquan, my resting heart rate has also dropped from around 80bpm to around 60bpm. I have developed significant new muscles mass, in my legs and torso, and I have a lower body fat percentage. Again my guess about the lower body fat is that I am burning more calories at rest now, as I'm breathing deeper and my metabolism, is activated at a deeper level. My lower resting heart rate would seem to agree with this.
I can also say with certainty that I get fewer muscle strains and injuries than ever before. As my body and muscles are much more balanced than previously.