Activity: The Benefits of Tai Chi
Tai Chi is an ancient mind-body practice that originated in China as a martial art and remains today, the most common form of exercise for adults in Asia. Despite being a low impact activity, extensive research has shown that Tai Chi promotes overall longevity and quality of life for those that practice the art form 5 - 6 hours per week.
Escaping on a Paradise Cruise surrounded by the monolithic limestone islands of Halong Bay provides the perfect opportunity to ‘dive right in’ and discover the age-old techniques of Tai Chi that have benefited millions over the centuries. Before even beginning the class, simply stepping out onto the sundeck bright and early in the morning is a breathtaking experience in and of itself…
As I climb the stairs and peek my sleepy head out over the wooden sundeck I am greeted by a completely different image of Halong Bay. The turquoise waters and vivid sunlight of yesterday’s adventures have been replaced by deep inky blues and grey tones of lavender. The otherworldly stillness of Halong Bay is heightened by the misty morning haze that has fallen over the Jurassic islands.
Improved Cardiovascular Fitness
Tai Chi is often described as ‘meditation in motion’. The low impact, slow-motion exercise is comprised of a series of fluid movements that flow into one another without pausing. Each movement aligns with two stages - breathe in, and breathe out. As movements are slow and controlled, so too is required of your breathing. This intense and repeated focus on steady cycles of breath does wonders for training your cardiovascular stability and mental wellbeing…
“1… 2… 3.. 4…” the soothing music plays around us as we gently move in fluid unison, our energies in sync. The clear, crisp air of early morning fills our lungs and awakens our senses. Colors seem brighter as the light of day starts to creep through the clouds in slivers of pastel pinks.
“5… 6… 7… 8…” as we exhale slowly and steadily, our bodies seem to mimic the rhythmic lull of the quiet bay waters that lap against and kiss the hull of the anchored boat.
What first sounded to me like a simple activity that would be a ‘walk in the park’, ends up proving more challenging than expected for this Tai Chi first-timer. Rarely in my everyday life do I take the time to focus so intently on deep and controlled breathing. I find myself making every effort to slow down and steady my breaths in time with the instructor’s measured counts, whilst simultaneously trying to ground my body and move my limbs to mirror their flowing actions. It takes all of my focus and attention to make sure that my breathing and my movements are correctly paced and completely in sync.
During the Tai Chi class, there is no time to think of anything else. There is no time to worry about the pressures of work or the dramas of everyday life back home. There is no chance for the mind to wander and plan for impending deadlines or that never-ending ‘to-do’ list. Like the Paradise Cruise overall, the Tai Chi class proves to be a true opportunity to ‘switch-off’ and reach a meditative state towards an enlightened mental clarity.
Improved Balance and Motor Function
The movements that are demonstrated within the Paradise Cruise Tai Chi classes are usually circular, completely fluid, and never forced or aggressive. My elbows, knees, shoulders, and hips are never fully extended, and my muscles are never fully stretched to exertion. Despite being a low impact exercise, Tai Chi can vastly improve both lower-body strength and upper-body strength with results that may be comparable to resistance training or brisk walking…
Halfway through the class, I feel my body warming up and my breath feels slightly strained. My core is locked, and the muscles in my back and abdomen work hard with one another to keep me stable and upright while assuring that the movements of my limbs are smooth and aqueous. The mental focus that is required to carry out these controlled movements and breathing patterns with the correct posture is surprisingly more intense than expected. The slight burn in my thighs, biceps, and shoulders is the good kind of burn, the burn that tells you the exercise is working. But what I love most about Tai Chi is how conscious I am of my whole body, how I stand, how I move, how I breathe, and how each limb, each joint, every inch of skin against the cool morning air of Halong Bay works in perfect harmony.
It is this extreme and crystal clear physical awareness that helps so many see a vast improvement in balance and motor function from regularly practicing Tai Chi. Tai Chi greatly aids in the development of proprioception, which is our ability to sense the position of one’s body within our surrounding space. It is the function between the sensory neurons of the inner ear, and the stretch receptors in our muscles and ligaments.
Despite an earlier bout of ‘sealegs’, I find myself surprisingly grounded. And even though I have not yet enjoyed my usual ‘first thing in the morning’ espresso, my once dreary head and lethargic limbs are now incredibly alert. I am more receptive to the firm sundeck underfoot and the way that I distribute my weight between left and right during each movement. I am conscious of the clean morning air that fills my lungs with each deep breath. I can suddenly hear the grand sails of the ship as they play against the gentle morning breeze of the bay. The colors of the sky seem brighter and the line of limestone islands on the horizon appear more in focus. I am awake.
Lower Anxiety Levels and Improved Sleeping Patterns
Due to the meditative qualities of Tai Chi, the exercise holds the ability to reduce stress and anxiety levels, mainly through the practice of focused breathing. Studies have shown that practicing Tai Chi just once a week over a period of twelve weeks will result in lower scores in depression and anxiety. It is believed that the slow and mindful breaths and movements have a positive effect on the nervous system and mood-regulating hormones. Studies have also discovered that those who practice Tai Chi on a regular basis experienced significant improvements in sleep quality and sleep duration after only ten weeks!
The warmth of the rising sun caresses my skin and ignites the sky in brilliant shades of peach and cerulean blue. My eyes feel wider and the heartstopping views before me seem so much clearer. My mind feels at ease, and my sluggish body feels lighter and moves about the handsome sundeck with nimble lightness. A distant ship’s foghorn calls across the glassy waters and my fellow travelers hazily stir from their slumber. How lucky am I to be where I am right now, in the presence of this colossal natural wonder. To wake up and see the ravishing skyline, and the undulating limestone bodies mirrored by the vast still waters of Halong Bay is nothing short of a blessing. I feel alive.
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