T’ai Chi — A New Approach to Water Fitness

Studies abound documenting the health benefits of t’ai chi chuan; it can lead to improvements in strength, flexibility, balance, coordination and posture. According to the National Institute on Aging, the practice of t’ai chi may reduce older adults’ risk of falling and breaking bones, and The Arthritic Foundation states that t’ai chi may be the ideal exercise for arthritis sufferers.

Originating in China, t’ai chi combines slow, graceful Kung Fu movements with inner awareness and breathing techniques. “T’ai chi is an effective remedy for stress, lethargy and mental sluggishness, too,” says t’ai chi instructor Ken Long, who combines Western, scientific relaxation methods with Eastern t’ai chi techniques. “At the end of a two-minute t’ai chi exercise, you should feel clearheaded, alert, more energetic and have a deeper sense of calm.”

Traditionally performed on land, t’ai chi can also be done in chest-deep water. Its movements can be incorporated into the warm-up, conditioning and cool-down phases of an aqua fitness class. “Because water adds both resistance and support, it provides an ideal environment for slow, rounded, flowing movements,” says Carol Argo, the California-based creator of water t’ai chi and an AFAA-certified instructor and trainer for the Aquatic Exercise Association. “The challenge is to overcome the effects of buoyancy and remain grounded.”

Argo recommends wearing aquatic shoes for better traction and to protect the bottom of your feet while practicing water t’ai chi. “T’ai chi is rooted in the feet, issued through the legs, controlled by the waist, and expressed through the hands,” she adds. “You only use the amount of energy needed to execute the movements.”

Argo cautions that t’ai chi movements should only be performed after your body is thoroughly warmed. Therapy pools with temperatures near 90 degrees are preferable, but not necessary. To help prevent being chilled in a typical pool, you can add power and speed to your movements, or you can alternate slow movements with fast ones.

For proper body positioning, pay attention to your posture and breathing. Your back should be straight and your head erect. To avoid a stiff posture, Argo suggests imagining that your head is suspended from above. You should focus your eyes straight ahead or follow the movements of your hands. Keep your breathing deep and relaxed, with your mind alert and concentrated on the activity.

Exhale naturally through your mouth and inhale naturally through your nose. Relax your arms with your shoulders sunk and your elbows slightly bent.

To find an aqua fitness class that is either devoted to water t’ai chi or that integrates the relaxing movements into a traditional class, contact your local fitness facilities with pools. Over the last three years, hundreds of instructors have learned the techniques of water t’ai chi, so your chances of finding instruction are fairly good.