Some historical references identify the inventor of tai chi (TC) as a Taoist priest from the 15th Century named Chang San Feng; other references credit Wangting Chen, a martial arts master who lived a century later. Some researchers believe that tai chi was practiced prior to the earliest written references. What is known is that the term has been used in connection with philosophy, religion, literature, art, medicine, and even astronomy. In particular, as a branch of martial arts, TC has been practiced for much longer than 400 years, it is believed, whether or not its exact origin can be determined.

The term itself is a shortened form of "tai chi chuan" and has been translated variously as "internal martial art" and "supreme ultimate fist." Incorporating the Chinese concepts of yin and yang (opposing forces within the body) and qi (life force or vital energy), the practice of tai chi is meant to support a healthy balance of yin and yang and so aiding the flow of qi. Many believe the original set of 13 exercises was developed to imitate the movements of animals; the emphasis was placed on meditation and internal force in contrast to external force (as is the case with other martial arts, such as kung fu and tae kwon do).

The 21st-century incarnation of tai chi refers to a series of distinct and standard movements designed to promote physical and psychological well-being and practiced by nearly 250 million people worldwide.

Public Profile

In Chinese communities, people commonly practice tai chi in groups that meet in parks, most often during the earliest hours of morning before going to work. Although styles abound, they all involve very slow, graceful movements; each flows directly into the next while the body remains in constant motion. The names of many actions are poetic, some strangely evocative: Move Hands Like Clouds; White Stork Spreads Wings; Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain; White Snake Turns and Puts Out Tongue. A practicing individual focuses on posture, concentrates on flow, and breathes in a deep and relaxed manner.

In the West, TC is generally grouped under Traditional Chinese Medicine, practices that were developed in China and based on a tradition of more than 5,000 years of shared and common concepts. As such, tai chi is classified as an alternative medicine and has become a more accepted method of exercise to promote a healthy lifestyle. It also has become the focus of attention from scientific investigators and health care professionals, particularly in the U.S. where it continues to gain popularity as a way to improve health.

Research Studies

Based on data obtained from National Health Interview Survey, an estimated 2.5 million individuals practice TC in the U.S. alone, while an additional 500,000 perform qigong. Another derivative of Traditional Chinese Medicine, qigong is closely related to TC; the primary difference between the two is that qigong manipulates qi by mindfulness more than by movements, the opposite being true for TC. Whether taken alone or grouped with qigong, tai chi now has a significant body of scientific literature supporting its beneficial health claims.

In fact, investigations have suggested that TC is related to improvements in mental health, psychosocial well-being, stress reduction, and sleep duration. Significantly, such benefits have been reported across a range of populations, including normal children, healthy young and elderly adults, and individuals suffering from Parkinson's, cardiovascular disease, and AIDS. Despite the number of studies, some researchers find the evidence lacking; flaws, they say, include inadequate study design, lack of control groups, small sample sizes, unsophisticated statistical techniques, or publication without rigorous peer review. There is every reason to assume, some researchers claim, the body's physiological response to tai chi is the same as its response to other forms of moderately intense exercise. If this is true, the criticism still upholds tai chi as offering health benefits.

Nevertheless, more pointed and more scientific studies also find positive health benefits in the practice of TC. For instance, one study conducted by the Oregon Research Institute sought to evaluate the efficacy of a six-month tai chi intervention for decreasing the number as well as the risk of falls in older persons.

A sample of 256 physically inactive, community-dwelling adults aged 70 to 92 were recruited through a patient database in Portland, Ore. for a randomized controlled trial. Participants participated in either a three-times-per-week tai chi group or a stretching control group for six months. The primary outcome measure was the number of falls; the secondary outcome measures included functional balance, physical performance, and fear of falling, assessed at baseline, three months, six months (intervention termination), and at a six-month follow-up.

At the end of the six-month intervention, fewer falls (38 as opposed to 73), lower proportions of fallers (28 percent compared with 46 percent), and fewer injurious falls (seven percent versus 18 percent) were observed in the tai chi group compared to the stretching control group. The risk for multiple falls in the tai chi group was 55 percent lower than that of the stretching control group. Compared, then, with the stretching control participants, the elderly individuals who practiced tai chi showed significant improvement in all measures of functional balance, physical performance, and reduced fear of falling.

Significantly, all of these gains were maintained at the follow-up point six months later. Another study that uses similar techniques focused on sufferers of tension headaches.


In June, Migraines and Headache Awareness Month is observed. More than 45 million Americans suffer from chronic headaches, according to the National Headache Foundation, with losses of billions of dollars each year in the form of absenteeism as well as billions more spent on over-the-counter medications. Tension-type headaches (TTH) represent just over three-quarters of all headaches; they occur either chronically or in single episodes and are most often reported to be the result of stress, anxiety, fatigue, or anger. Symptoms include soreness and pain, a tightening band-like sensation around the head, pressure sensations, and contracted head and neck muscles. Generally, treatment includes massage, relaxation routines, biofeedback, medications (including over-the-counter pain killers and muscle relaxants), and stress reduction. A group of California researchers wondered — what about tai chi as a treatment for tension headaches?

A study conducted with the help of UCLA Center for East West Medicine examined the effect of tai chi on the impact of headaches in adults who suffer from tension-type headaches. Forty-seven participants were randomly assigned to either a 15-week program of tai chi instruction or a waitlist control group. Assessments of their headaches as well as their health-related quality of life (HRQOL) were obtained when the study began as well as at five, 10, and 15 weeks.

Statistically significant improvements in both the number and pain of headaches as well as HRQOL (energy/fatigue, social functioning, emotional well-being, and mental health) were scored by those participants selected to perform tai chi. Although this small study is not conclusive in and of itself, it does amount to another brick in the wall of evidence that tai chi confers many health benefits on practitioners.

Sources: Jahnke R, Larkey L, Rogers C, Etnier J, Lin F. A Comprehensive Review of Health Benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi. American Journal of Health Promotion. 2010.

Li F, Harmer P, Fisher KJ, et al.Tai Chi and fall reductions in older adults: a randomized controlled trial. The Journal of Gerontology. 2005.

Abbott RB, Hui K. Hays RD, Li M-D, Pan T. A Randomized Controlled Trial of Tai Chi for Tension Headaches. Evidence Based Complementary Alternative Medicine. 2007.