By Sharon Puszko, PhD, LMT

I have reviewed many aspects of health while researching topics for my self-care column in Massage Today. From the importance of sleep, to how our brains benefit from being active and now feel like I now have a more balanced approach to wellness.

Thinking about the concept of balance led me to re-visit what I have learned about tai chi, especially because several clients of mine have been talking about it lately.

I have previously written about the benefits of yoga, and while tai chi is similar, it is more accessible than yoga as it is a little less demanding on the body. While both yoga and tai chi integrate breathing with body postures and focus on aligning the body and mind, there are significant differences between them.

Dabbling in the Arts

Yoga originated in India, includes schools that are very vigorous, and originally included a spiritual component to the practice. Tai chi is a form of martial art that originated in China, focuses on aligning the body and mind, and uses solely low-impact movements. While traveling through China, many times I witnessed people in parks practicing tai chi, as well as men in business suits starting our their work day by practicing tai chi in their office.

Dr. Paul Lam is a world authority in the field of tai chi practice and instruction. He is a physician in Australia and has trained over 10,000 instructors across the globe through his “Tai Chi for Health” program. I had the pleasure of meeting him several years ago, and was able to interview him about tai chi. I was amazed by its many benefits, not only for massage therapists, but also for our clients, especially those that suffer from arthritis.  Below are some excerpts of my interview with him.

SP: How would you describe tai chi to the layperson?

PL: Tai chi originated in ancient China where it is considered a martial art. There is much more to tai chi than one can see, but basically, tai chi consists of slow, continuous whole-body movements, strung together in a form. Like dance, the movements are learned and follow one after the other. The essential principles of tai chi include integrating the mind with the body, fluid movements, controlled breathing and mental concentration. The central focus is to enable the qi (pronounced chee), or life force, to flow smoothly and powerfully throughout the body. Total harmony of the inner and outer self comes from the integration of the mind and body. This can be achieved through regular practice.

SP: We know there are many benefits to practicing Tai chi. When thinking about massage therapists, and the work they do, what do you think are the most beneficial aspects of tai chi for them?

PL: Treating patients can be emotionally and physically draining for massage therapists. Tai chi can strengthen your mental balance and improve your physical energy as well as your internal strength. It is an excellent way to help therapists revitalize themselves. Once a therapist learns tai chi, he/she can then apply the tai chi principle as they treat their patients. These principles enable the therapist to work with better posture, using more internal energy and causing less muscular strain. This increases the therapeutic effect and minimizes the chance of injury. The therapist can use tai chi principles to regenerate their internal energy so they will not feel as tired as they usually do.

SP: Is it more beneficial for massage therapists to practice tai chi before or after giving a massage?

PL: Practicing tai chi is always beneficial at any time, especially before and after a session with a client. Practicing tai chi prior to seeing clients only takes a short period of time and helps to warm up and stretch the body. After a session, it can help one wind down by restoring physical and mental energy.

SP: Are there different routines to do in the morning and in the evening?

PL: There are many forms of tai chi, and one should choose a form based on individual preference. You can learn many different sets of tai chi or focus on one simple set. Whether one practices the same set or different sets in the morning or evening does not matter. The benefit of practicing tai chi and the key to improving in it is to adhere to the essential principles, which remain the same regardless of which style or set one chooses.

SP: If someone wants to begin tai chi for the first time, do you think it would be more beneficial to start practicing with an instructor in a class?

PL: I believe going to a good teacher, one that is suitable for your needs, is the best way to begin the practice of tai chi.Sometimes that may not be possible and a DVD can substitute for a teacher, as well as compliment a good one. Learning tai chi from a DVD may be easier and more effective than a book if a suitable teacher is not accessible.

Dr. Lam recommended I start practicing tai chi, as it is a great way to relax and take a break from the physical rigors of massage. I have been practicing for several years now, and I must say that I do find it is very helpful to me as a massage therapist. I highly recommend learning tai chi, and hope you find it as beneficial as I have.

Dr. Paul Lam, a family physician and lecturer of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia since 1976, is a world leader in the field of tai chi for health improvement. He has participated in research on the subject of tai chi’s effects on health, and  has authored and co-authored numerous papers, articles in peer reviewed medical journals, as well as lay magazines and books. For more information, please visit www.drpaullam.com.

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