This past week was full of celebrations and banquets in Chinatown welcoming the Year of the Rat! Many of the martial arts schools were out performing Kung Fu, Tai Chi, and Lion Dances. To mark the occasion I’d like to share with you some of the modern research that has proven Tai Chi to be an incredibly powerful tool for healing and health maintenance!
Relatively unknown in North America prior to the early 1960’s, the practices of meditation, Qigong (chee-kung) and Taiji Quan (Tai Chi Chuan) have roots in Chinese culture that go back to the Shang Dynasty, 3500 years ago. Chinese migration to the United States, which began in the 1800’s, started to steadily increase after the passage of 1965 Immigration Act and again in 1978 after the Republic of China began to relax emigration policies. With the arrival of more and more Chinese people came a growing interest in Chinese history, arts and culture.
For decades the practice of Taiji Quan in the United States has come with a large body of associated claims regarding its ability to promote health and longevity in its practitioners. These most often are vague claims that tout “relaxation,” “balance,” and “being centered.” Some of the more fantastic claims reported the ability make the body virtually immune to illness, to cure of chronic diseases such as cancer, and promoting robust health and vitality well into old age. For many years these anecdotal claims were rebuffed by the modern medical community, mostly due to a lack of strong clinical research to back up the claims.
This began to change in the early 1970’s when a Harvard-trained Cardiologist named Dr. Herbert Benson published his first groundbreaking study on what he termed The Relaxation Response. Dr. Benson had performed laboratory research which proved that people who engaged in Transcendental Meditation could reliably and predictably reduce both their heart rate and blood pressure. In the 40 years since his research was published. Dr. Benson went on to found the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. Since that time the Benson Henry Institute has published hundreds of studies proving that Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) practices such as Taiji, Qigong, Meditation, Yoga, and Acupuncture can have very powerful effects to both prevent and treat illness.
I began practicing Taiji and Qigong at the Asian American Cultural Center in Boston’s Chinatown not long after they opened in (2005?). Since that time hundreds of students have studied the traditional cultural arts which the Center promotes, including Kung Fu, Taiji, Qigong, and Lion Dancing. When I completed my training as a Registered Nurse and later as a Nurse Practitioner I knew that I wanted to encourage my patients to take up these practices to promote health and wellness, but I wanted to be sure that I was making responsible evidence-based recommendations. This lead me on a nearly 10-year journey learning what the modern science-based research had to say about these arts.
What I learned was truly surprising.
A Prescription for Optimal Health
I began studying Martial Arts In the mid 1980’s, nearly 20 years before I met Sifu Donald Wong who I study with now. In that time I had heard many remarkable stories about the healing properties of martial arts and qigong. What I learned studying the science was that many of these claims were, if anything, underselling the true potential that Taiji, Qigong, and other Chinese arts.
Imagine going to your Healthcare Provider for your annual checkup and being told there was a single tablet which would help you sleep better, improve symptoms of depression and anxiety, lower your blood pressure, help digestion, control diabetes, help you maintain cognition, improve bone density and muscle mass, help you age better, live longer, and avoid illness and injury. Would you be interested?
This miracle cure exists, but it isn’t a tablet. It’s Taiji.
Taiji and Qigong
The difference between the practice of Taiji and the practice of Qigong is somewhat nebulous. Done correctly, all Taiji should also be an excellent form of Qigong, but not all forms of Qigong are Taiji.
Most Qigong is practiced either sitting or standing. Some may be practiced completely still and others include repetitive movements coordinated with the breath. While they are moving, generally they are performed standing in place. The use of the mind or intent varies, but there is most often a gentle inward focus.
Taiji on the other hand uses a series of connected movements where the practitioner walks back and forth in a prearranged pattern. There are many different kinds of Taiji and each style has different forms. Some are shorter, taking 5-10 minutes to complete. Others are significantly longer, taking up to an hour.
Where Taiji and Qigong intersect is the use of the breath and the mind. Both arts try to maintain a soft inward focus with the mind and coordinate the movements of the body and breath together.
The Evidence-Based Benefits of Qigong
When studying anxiety and depression one of the tools that Doctors and researchers often use is a PHQ-9 score. This is a short survey that a patient fills out to track their sleep, energy, appetite, and other possible signs of depression. In one study, patients undergoing Cardiac Rehabilitation were given an 8-week program of instruction in mindfulness. They were asked to practice 10 minutes twice a day. 50% of the participants in the study reported a greater than 33% improvement in their PHQ-9 scores. This means less stress, worry, anxiety, depression, better sleep, and better appetite. These patients also had significantly lower readmission rates to the hospital.
Your Heart and Lungs
Another area where Mindfullness and Qigong have been shown to have great benefits are in the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems.
A study published in 2018 in the Journal of Hypertension demonstrated that patients were able to lower their blood pressure significantly with a similar program of daily mindfulness. Other studies have shown that patients can reliably decrease their blood pressure as much as 15%, which in many cases means they can stop taking one or more blood pressure medications!
People with lung disease like asthma or COPD also show benefit from mindfulness and meditation. A 2017 study published in Journal of Yoga & Physical Therapy asked patients with asthma to practice Body Scanning, a practice of meditation, for 45 minutes once a week. After only five weeks many of the patients on the study showed a 15-20% improvement in their FEV1 score, a number which tests the volume of air your lungs can hold and exhale. Additionally, the patients in this study demonstrated fewer asthma attacks, less coughing and wheezing, and an improved sense of wellbeing.
Diabetes affects over 30 million Americans and according to the CDC as many as 100 million Americans are either diabetic or prediabetic. In a study published by the American Diabetes Association in 2010 showed a 10% drop in a1c (a measure of your blood sugar for the previous 90 days) in patients who practiced qigong three times a week. In contrast, oral tablets for diabetes may only lower your a1c 1.5%! Controlling your blood sugar and lowering your a1c is absolutely essential in order to prevent the long term complications associated with diabetes.
One of the fastest growing fields in medicine is the study of aging. There has been an extraordinary amount of research in the last ten year about the specific ways our body changes as we age and the mechanisms responsible for those changes. Some of the most intriguing research revolves around how our cells reproduce, making copies of themselves over and over. As we age, these copies are more prone to malfunction. This process is at the center of are related changes including heart disease, high blood pressure, cognitive decline, and cancer.
If you think of your DNA as a shoelace, Telomeres are little “caps” found at the ends of each strand. As our cells divide and reproduce, Telomeres act as a buffer to protect the ends of the chromosome from “fraying.” As your DNA starts to “fray” and break down, the copies of the cells your body creates become less and less like the original. These transcription errors are thought to be at the heart of many chronic diseases of aging. Research has shown that high levels of psychological stress can cause your telomeres to break down, whereas controlling perceived stress and anxiety actually promotes healthy telomere length.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph. D won a Nobel Prize for her research into Telomeres. In her book “The Telomere Effect” she recommends mindfulness practice, exercise, and community as a way from promoting healthy telomere length and preventing diseases related to aging.
It won’t come to a surprise to anyone already involved, but when learning Taiji and Qigong you have all of this and much much more.
The Evidence Based Benefits of Taiji Quan
The slow rhythmic movements of Taiji may lull the casual observer into a false sense that this art is simply a matter of relaxed laziness. Not true! Research into Taiji has shown that it not only comes with all of the benefits of Qigong listed above, but also provides improved cardiovascular and aerobic efficiency compared to brisk walking for the same duration of time, increased lean muscle mass, and drastically improved sense of balance, all of which has lead to a large body of evidence proving that the practice of Taiji helps prevent falls in the elderly, a leading cause of both mortality and morbidity. Slowing down allows you to move forward and unleash your bodies true potential for health.
In my personal experience Taiji has all the same requirements for the practitioner as Qigong, but it demands much more. While the forms usually don’t look particularly demanding, the slow measured stepping requires a constant attention on balance. Coordinating the breath along with the movements of the hands and body generates a degree of somatic presence that can quickly exhaust beginner students. If Qigong was a light jog and Kung Fu was a sprint, Taiji is a marathon. All the same skills are required, but for much longer periods of time. This develops a strong intentional focus, a long, slow, deep breath, and a coordinated lively body.
Taiji has been known in China for centuries and in the United States for decades as being “good for your health.” Over 20 years of practice and 10 years of in-depth examination of research has proven to me beyond any doubt that this is a humbling understatement. Taiji, and Qigong, along with many of their related somatic practices (among which I would certainly include Yoga) may indeed be one of the most potent tools for health and longevity that human kind has produced.
I may have left the best for last. The practice of Taiji and Qigong generally comes with a group of like-minded people to practice with. People develop a sense of reflection, shared purpose and community. Each of these qualities has a profound effect on the emotional and physical health of a person.
In the 15 years I have been at the Asian American Cultural Center I have watched as many of the students who began practicing as children have grown up, gone to college, start careers, and marry. I’ve watched students who met in class have fallen in love. In my time at the AACC I met my wife, married, and had a son who now practices with me at home and comes to class when possible. All three of the Sifu from the Center came to my wedding and we had a Lion Dance. There have been countless banquets, performances, Lion Dances, tournaments, birthday parties, seminars, camping trips, fun runs, and demonstrations. We’ve welcomed hundreds of students over the years and mourned those who passed on.
In short, many of us have found a family in our practice. We’ve developed strong bonds between us that will last a lifetime, been mentored and shaped by our teachers, all while refining these arts which hold the potential to heal us and the generations of students which will follow.
In China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan it is very common to see people of all ages coming together in parks to study under a Tai Chi master. Many studies have demonstrated that people who have strong social connections stay healthier, live longer, and heal quicker than those who are isolated. Young people with positive role models and strong safety nets more often become healthy and successful adults. Among the elderly the importance of social support mechanisms in the promotion of physical and emotional health is well established. Traditionally, this need could be met by the large extended family. In modern times however the surrogate family and social network which exists in many Tai Chi clubs can serve much the same purpose of helping people fight off the effects of isolation.
In short, while Taiji and Qigong are both excellent ways to de-stress and relax, their true potential to make positive changes in a person’s life is nearly limitless. All that you need is to find a teacher, Slow Down, and Move Forward.
- Randomized Trial of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in Cardiac Patients Eligible for Cardiac Rehabilitation
- BENEFITS OF MINDFULNESS MEDITATION IN REDUCING BLOOD PRESSURE AND STRESS IN PATIENTS WITH ARTERIAL HYPERTENSION
- BENEFITS OF MINDFULNESS MEDITATION IN REDUCING BLOOD PRESSURE AND STRESS IN PATIENTS WITH ARTERIAL HYPERTENSION
- Effects of Qigong on Glucose Control in Type 2 Diabetes
- Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres?
- Zen meditation, Length of Telomeres, and the Role of Experiential Avoidance and Compassion
- Evaluation of energy expenditure and cardiovascular health effects from Tai Chi and walking exercise.
- Changes in muscle strength, endurance, and reaction of the lower extremities with Tai Chi intervention
- The effects of Tai Chi on fall prevention, fear of falling and balance in older people: A meta-analysis
- Tai Chi Chuan to improve muscular strength and endurance in elderly individuals: A pilot study