• Tai Chi, an ancient martial art and self-defence practice, is today often used for its wellbeing benefits

  • The many physical benefits include improve mobility and muscle strength, but it can have many psychological benefits too

  • Daphne Richardson, Tai Chi instructor, shares eight ways Tai Chi boosts mental health

It’s well-documented that regular physical exercise can have a positive impact on our mental health. Exercise stimulates chemicals and releases endorphins (feel good hormones) that improve our mood. They are responsible for reducing pain. Exercise helps us sleep better, making us more energetic and improving our outlook. And it doesn’t matter what type of exercise we do; the benefits are the same. A walk, run or swim, interval training, weight lifting or dancing – it’s proven that getting physical helps us out mentally.

So what about Tai Chi? Well it’s not a typical exercise regime. It's often depicted as ‘some kind of slow dance’, yet it still delivers all of the above. And Tai Chi has certain characteristics that make it a great way to boost our mental health.  

What is Tai Chi?

Tai Chi (or Tai Chi Chuan) originated many thousands of years ago as a Chinese martial art. Practised for combat and self-defence, every movement has a fighting application. In fact, by definition, Tai Chi Chuan means ‘Supreme Ultimate Fist’.

Tai Chi movements are gentle and low impact. It is renowned for being slow, controlled and flowing, with the graceful manoeuvres combining into a ‘Form’ (sequence). Yet whilst it looks easy, the detail behind each move is deeply layered.

Nowadays, Tai Chi is often practised for its health, fitness and wellbeing benefits. It is gaining popularity as an exercise that helps maintain our muscle strength, mobility and balance as we age. It is becoming a useful exercise for those who suffer with joint pain, arthritis and other chronic illness.

But it is the benefits it can deliver to our mental health that are starting to be noticed. Often referred to as ‘meditation in motion’, Tai Chi possesses many qualities of a self-healing holistic practice. It is a powerful mind-body exercise that moves participants not just physically, but mentally, emotionally and sometimes spiritually.

Here are eight ways that Tai Chi can boost our mental health:

1. Slow pace

Having to slow things right down in order to perform Tai Chi forces us to step off life’s ‘merry-go-round’. As we move slowly, the body begins to relax, releasing tension, freeing stiffness and de-stressing. As the physical unwinds, so does the mind. 

A quiet, peaceful ambiance envelops the body and mind, allowing us to switch off. If we’re running at one hundred miles an hour before class starts, then, within minutes, Tai Chi presses our reset button. This time out is important for our mental health as it gives us the opportunity to heal.

2. Controlled movements

Tai Chi movements are controlled, measured and coordinated. This brings a need to be self-disciplined. We have to be aware of the body, how, why and where it is moving. This makes us feel organised, ordered and brings about a calm, stable controlled mind-set. Often we suffer stress, worry and anxiety when life feels ‘out of control’ and our mental health is affected negatively as a result. Tai Chi helps us feel in control, positive and able to deal with modern life.

3. Focus and intention

We are taught to move with focus and intention. No Tai Chi movement is just ‘thrown away’, it is deliberate, and it is felt internally and expressed externally. This is the true power of Tai Chi as a mind-body exercise and it effectively creates a physical and mental harmony. We clear the mind and focus only on our Tai Chi.

4. Body awareness, posture and alignment

Tai Chi teaches an awareness of the body, posture and alignment. We learn about body weight, how we sink it through the body into the feet and root to the floor. This process is called ‘grounding’. Through this, we connect to ‘Earth Qi’ (energy) which gives us a sense of stability, strength and balance. Working in conjunction, we ‘lift from the crown’ by feeling a stretch up the spine, towards the sky. This connects us to ‘Heaven Qi’ which brings a feeling of clarity, calm and lightness.

This self-study helps build a strong and powerful body, but at the same time, develops an inner strength and power making us feel centred, balanced and ‘at one’. This is great for our mind-set.

5. Breathing and relaxation

The relationship between mind, body and breathing is what helps Tai Chi to be an effective way to relax; crucial to our own mental health. Deeper, slower breathing expands the lungs and chest, increases oxygen exchange, stimulates the lymphatic system, slows down the heart rate, lowers blood pressure and calms the adrenal (stress) glands. We become conscious of our breath, its rhythm and respiration rate. We inhale the positive and exhale the negative. This improves our mood.

When we are stressed; the body holds onto that stress in tight, tense muscles and this can lead to fatigue. It takes training to help relax the body. During Tai Chi practice, the aim is for our joints and muscles to be relaxed, tension and stress-free, so it is a good relaxation technique to acquire. As our body learns to relax, then so does the mind.

6. Concentration

There are many depths to Tai Chi, but even the basics are not as simple as they appear. And to remember a Tai Chi Form takes concentration. We cannot let our mind wander for a second otherwise we have lost the flow. Because of this Tai Chi teaches us to be ‘in the moment’. It clears the mind of chatter; we cannot think about the past or future, only the present. This gives us a break from everyday stresses and opens the mind to positivity. It requires us to leave behind our worries, troubles and list of things to do.

7. Mindfulness

Tai Chi is a mindful approach to movement and this mindfulness begins to pass over into everyday life. It slows us down and asks us to challenge ‘why are we darting about?’ or ‘what are we stressing about?’ It teaches us to think clearly, calmly and let go of what we can’t control. It asks us to take time, find inner peace, live in the present and helps us cope with modern life.

8. Community and social contact

Tai Chi classes tend to be non-competitive, friendly, supportive communities. It is not about whether we learn the move faster or execute the stance better, it is all about our own journey of personal growth and development. Building relationships with class members who are caring can make us feel part of a community and give us a sense of belonging. Social contact is great for our mental health.

Tai Chi may not solve all our mental health issues but it can be a very effective tool in our self-care management. It delivers a plethora of benefits to our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing and can boost our mental health.

Daphne Richardson is a Tai Chi instructor at Freshfield Fitness

Further reading

How to change the way you think about exercise

Why does physical exercise improve mental health?

How Qigong supports physical and mental wellbeing

How Yin yoga supports my therapy

Dear body, a love letter