Joint health is often a neglected factor in exercise regimes, and indeed many highly-trained sportspeople end up wrecking their knees, back and other joints because their training regime simply doesn’t account for the health needs of the joints. Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan in the more modern transliteration) and Qigong exercises, on the other hand, are known for their attention to joint health.
Take a moment to watch the video below and note how the practitioner is taking all his joints gently through their complete range of motion while keeping his muscles deeply relaxed.
Healthy joints are essential to the body’s energy system, and ultimately, of course, to movement, while joint problems underpin many chronic diseases. An effective joint health regimen is an essential part of exercise for everyone. The Tai Chi approach to joint health contains several interrelated elements.
1. Range of Motion
By taking the joints slowly and rhythmically through their complete range of motion, several birds are killed with one stone. Not only are mobility and flexibility enhanced through gentle manipulation, but by working the joints, they are oxygenated and lubricated with synovial fluid, the body’s joint tissue lubricant and shock-absorbing fluid.
2. Opening and Closing
Tai Chi movements rhythmically open and close the joints, which means that they are extended and contracted, working the cartilage of the joint and encouraging production of synovial fluid.
3. Energy Circulation
Both the joints and the connective tissue around them are an important medium for the body’s energy system. Tai Chi not only encourages energy flow by maintaining the health of the tissues, it actively uses that energy, circulating it throughout the soft tissues and projecting it outside the body.
Tai Chi principles of postural alignment, as perfectly incarnated in the Qigong posture Embracing the Tree, do several important things for the joints. They align every element of the skeleton perfectly so that incoming force is redirected as efficiently as possible into the ground, meaning that neither muscular nor joint resistance is required. They allow force to be generated in such a way that the joints are protected. These postural principles allow us to align our bodies optimally in motion, putting minimum unnecessary stress on the joints.
5. Strengthening Tissue
The joints and their cartilage are surrounded by connective tissues, and their health depends on strengthening these tissues. These are tendons, which join muscle to bone, and ligaments, which attach one bone to another, and fascia, which wrap around the muscles. These connective tissues are an extremely strong and efficient load-bearing mechanism, far more so than the muscles, provided they are healthy.
Tai Chi systematically strengthens the connective tissue while promoting its flexibility through gentle twisting or spiraling motions and extensions, an effective approach to avoiding stiffness. Because of Tai Chi’s emphasis on muscular relaxation, movements tend to focus primarily on the connective tissue. It is possible to go through the Tai Chi form with an internal focus on the joints and tendons.
A System for Joint Longevity
Conditions related to poor joint health, diminishing range of motion and connective tissue degeneration are among the most common and debilitating complaints associated with aging. Joint injuries are likewise one of the most common debilitating injuries both among athletes and among older people.
Tai Chi’s gentle, systematic and whole-body approach to joint health is an excellent way to ensure that your joints remain strong, flexible, resilient to injury and retain their range of motion for a very long time to come.