Tai chi

Traditional exercises will always hold their place in the fitness world, but many today who seek out new ways to get fit are searching for routines that combine both physical fitness and mindfulness. As a result, one of the most popular forms of fitness they’re gravitating toward isn’t new. In fact, it dates back centuries.

Tai chi, an ancient form of Chinese martial arts known for its relatively slow movements and concentration, combines both health benefits and mindfulness. However, while popular in Asia, many in the western hemisphere have not taken part in traditional Tai chi.

“It’s very intensive, it’s very demanding, it’s very slow, and most Westerners just don’t have the time or patience for it,” says Matt Jeffs, a physical therapist and principal faculty member of The Back School.

Now, combining elements of traditional Tai chi with breathing techniques and mindfulness, TaijiFit™ has emerged as a popular form of physical fitness. The workout founded by David-Dorian Ross emphasizes continuity, connection, balance and full-body exercise to reduce stress and improve body coordination.

Jeffs compares Tai chi to classical music, while TaijiFit is similar to jazz. Tai chi, no matter what style it is, will be practiced as it was hundreds of years ago, just as a Mozart symphony today will be played with the exact notes as it was centuries ago. Jeffs compares Ross to Miles Davis and says while TaijiFit has the elements of classical music, much of it can be improvised and adapted to those taking the classes.

“With TaijiFit, once you know some basic core moves, you can make new art every time you play it,” says Jeffs, who is also a certified instructor of TaijiFit.

Now, TaijiFit has introduced people of all ages to the physical benefits and mindfulness that Tai chi has been accomplishing for centuries.

Helping the workforce

At The Back School, which provides ergonomics training and an array of services for health care wellness and safety, Jeffs routinely leads ergonomics courses for employers. Jeffs says that in the workforce, the two leading causes of nonfatal lost work time are due to strains, pains and aches, and the other is due to slips, trips and falls. On top of that, the workforce is aging, especially in skilled trades where the average age is mid 50s.

Jeffs says one of the reasons why TaijiFit is a go-to recommendation is because it combines exercise with mindfulness. As one ages, balance, flexibility and stress management start to become more difficult, which TaijiFit teaches in each session.

More importantly, Jeffs says, is that the courses are fun and accessible to any age and any level of fitness.

“You have to look over a crowd of employees, whether it’s 40 or 400, and you have to identify the least fit person in the room,” Jeffs says. “Once you identify the least fit person, you have to make that person successful. TaijiFit is that, where you can look across a crowd of people and say, ‘There’s somebody in the back who looks like they’ve never lifted a weight in their life. That’s fine. Let’s do some moves that make them successful.’ If I’m successful with that person, then I’m successful with the other 399.”

A mental workout

Perhaps just as important as the physical movements of TaijiFit is one’s mental awareness, which takes a great deal of focus and discipline.

Jeffs highlights the three elements to mindfulness that he teaches: Focus on your breath, have awareness to recognize when your mind drifts from your breath and practice acceptance.

It’s the third stage in which Jeffs says participants have two choices: They can either be down on themselves that they let their mind wander, or they can recognize their mind has wandered and welcome it back to focus on the breath.

“We’re cultivating awareness of ourselves and the world around us, and we’re cultivating acceptance,” he says.

By focusing on the breath and steadying one’s mind, Jeffs says many who take part in TaijiFit don’t realize the physical benefits they’re getting at the time.

“You’re not going to realize it while we’re doing the class, but you’re going to wind up doing 60 or 80 mini squats, 60 or 80 mini lunges, 60 or 80 or more weight shifts,” he says.

The courses have grown in popularity, and Jeffs says he can see that each time he leads a class. In traditional Tai chi, classes may start with 20 students and end up with two, but it’s the reverse for TaijiFit, he says. At the same time, unlike many exercises, TaijiFit can be adapted to everyday life in helping to prevent injury, improve balance and reduce stress.

It’s one of the reasons why Jeffs has such a passion for it, as it relates to all elements of his life whether personal or professional. He says one of the reasons he started working to assist the workforce is because he wants to help people prevent injury rather than treating it after the fact.

“TaijiFit wound up being a mold and model to that,” he says. “My why is to leave this place better than I found it. It’s to leave the career field of physical therapy better than I found it. It’s to leave the world better than I found it, and this is the vehicle for that.”

This article was originally published in Community Health magazine for WPV.