SOUND MIND, SOUND BODY: Tai chi can help mind, body get, stay fit

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Tai chi is an ancient Chinese art that originated thousands of years ago. Today, tai chi is incorporated into fitness programs to aid in stress management and maintains diseases.

Tai chi, also known as tai chi chuan, incorporates stretching along with gentle physical exercise. Just like any other mind-body exercise, tai chi allows a person to generate strength while elongating the muscles through graceful and peaceful movements.

Tai chi is unique in that the mind and the body are constantly focusing on the qi, pronounced "chee." Qi is often translated as "energy flow". This is similar to the mind-body exercise of yoga where people are focusing on the "prana", or breath. The qi aids in mental clarity as well as releases negative blockages from the body.

"Qi is energy that flows through the body so when the energy or qi is flowing smoothly with out being blocked we have a sense of well being and calmness; therefore giving us a sense of a positive mood or feeling," says Carol Day, certified volunteer tai chi instructor at the YMCA.

Carol's tai chi journey started in July 2006 while taking tai chi from Sandi Wicher, owner of Many Waters Wellness Center.

About a year later, Carol was certified to teach Dr. Pau Lam's tai chi for arthritis and diabetes, which is "unique in the way it is taught by what is called the 'step wise progressive teaching method' which makes learning easy for students, so they feel good about their ability to learn," she said.

Since there are numerous movements in tai chi, it indirectly teaches us patience due to practice and continuous learning.

"Each form is broken down into small steps of learning one move at a time and in this way builds confidence," Day says.

Beyond mental benefits, tai chi greatly assists a person's physical health.

Tai chi is known for improving health for those who suffer from arthritis, diabetes, cancer, Parkinson's disease and chronic stress, Day says.

In addition, tai chi helps prevent falls, relieves chronic pain, improves quality of sleep, relieves anxiety and depression and decreases blood pressure.

This "mediation in motion" benefits all ages.

"Tai Chi benefits anyone of any age starting with children; however, seniors mostly benefit as it helps balance, coordination, as well as the mind and body connection. There are many success stories from seniors who have improved their thinking and memory process, like mind aerobics," Day says.

"Tai Chi is excellent for brain focus and improvement working the mind and the body in unison. Thus helping the mind and body stay fit."

Looking for tai chi? Local options include classes at the YMCA, Many Waters Wellness Center and Walla Walla Community College.

Elizabeth Kovar has been working in the fitness industry since 2006 with international experience from India and Australia. She has a master's degree in recreation and tourism and is the associate director of healthy living at the YMCA. She can be reached at ekovar@wwymca.org.

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