The ancient practices of yoga and tai chi have become increasingly popular in the Western world, where you’ve probably heard them referred to as “mind-body” practices—a term loosely applied to activities or therapies that combine physical movement with a heightened awareness of the body in the present moment. In fact, yoga, a Sanskrit word, translates literally as “yoke” or “union,” a nod to its integration of mind and body.
There’s accumulating scientific evidence to suggest that both tai chi and yoga can help improve physical and mental health across a wide range of ages and health statuses. Benefits range from reducing pain and preventing falls to boosting mood and easing depression and anxiety. Here’s an overview of each practice and some of the most recent research findings.
Tai chi (full name tai chi chuan) originated in China ?centuries ago as a martial art; it was an ?outgrowth of the ancient Taoist philosophy,? which values tranquility and reflection. As it’s practiced today, tai chi combines elements of a workout, meditation, and dance. You may have seen groups practicing it outdoors under the guidance of a teacher.
Tai chi consists of slow, balanced, low-impact movements performed in sequences known as “sets” or “forms. ” The postures and gestures are derived from animal movements. To do the sets correctly, you must learn controlled breathing, concentration, how to shift your body weight, and how to relax your muscles.
Here are some recent findings on tai chi’s benefits:
Boosted brain power. In a study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, which included 120 healthy older people in China, those who practiced tai chi three times a week for 40 weeks showed increases in brain volume and improvements on several tests of memory and learning, compared to those not doing the exercise.
Less depression and anxiety. Tai chi showed positive effects on various measures of psychological well-being, including reduced depression, anxiety, and stress management, according to a systematic review of 42 studies in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. And tai chi yielded statistically significant reductions in anxiety symptoms in 12 of 17 studies included in a review in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine.
Better balance, fewer falls. Much research has shown that tai chi can improve balance and coordination, as well as reduce fall risk. Guidelines about fall prevention in older people from the American Geriatrics Society and its British counterpart recommend tai chi because it targets strength, gait, and balance.
Reduced pain and improved function in people with chronic conditions. In an analysis of 33 studies published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers looked at tai chi's effects in nearly 1,600 people with breast cancer, osteoarthritis, heart failure, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Overall, tai chi was found to have favorable effects on knee muscle strength, walking ability, and quality of life. In particular, it reduced pain and stiffness in people with osteoarthritis and shortness of breath in opeople with COPD. Tai chi was typically practiced two or three times a week for 12 weeks in the studies.
How to get started
Yoga originated in India and has achieved mass popularity in the Western world, where you can find a style to suit most any preference and health status—from gentle stretching to vigorous “flow” to hot (Bikram) yoga (more on this below), which is practiced in a 90° to105° room.
Studies of yoga are often small or poorly designed, and they vary widely in frequency and duration, which makes it difficult to draw conclusions. But recent, promising findings include these benefits:
Less pain, depression, and anxiety. In an overview of 26 systematic reviews, published in Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, British researchers determined that regular yoga practice—particularly two gentle forms, Hatha and Restorative—was associated with reduced symptoms of depression, pain, and anxiety in adults with various acute and chronic health conditions, including back pain, fibromyalgia, and psychiatric disorders.
Stress management. A systematic review of 17 studies, published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, concluded that yoga was an effective tool for managing stress, which is linked to numerous mental and physical health problems.
Better quality of life in cancer patients. Numerous studies in people with cancer have found that yoga and other mind-body techniques can lower distress and improve quality of life, according to a review in Current Oncology Reports. Specific benefits include improved sleep, reduced fatigue, and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Improved mood and less pain in people with arthritis. In a clinical trial of 75 sedentary adults with rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis of the knee, published in the Journal of Rheumatology, an 8-week yoga program was found to improve walking, pain, energy, mood, and perceived physical health compared with a control group that was waitlisted for yoga. The benefits lasted through 9 months of follow-up.
How to get started
- Begin with a small, basic-level class or private/semi-private lessons where you can get more individualized attention.
- Check the instructor’s qualifications. There’s no licensing for yoga instructors, but you can ask about the type of yoga they teach, their experience, and where they got their training. Schools registered with the Yoga Alliance must meet at least minimal educational standards for certifying teachers. One or more 500-hour certifications are considered preferable.
- If you aren’t fit or have been sedentary, avoid strenuous forms such as Ashtanga, “power yoga,” and hot yoga. And if you have a musculoskeletal problem or previous injury, talk to your doctor or a physical therapist first, since even gentler types of yoga can strain joints and other body parts.
Also see Movement and Your Mind.