Health Benefits of Taichi & Qigong
Modern medical research has now evaluated the effectiveness and safety of Tai Chi & Qi Gong as a preventative and therapeutic tool for a variety of health issues including: balance and postural stability, musculoskeletal strength and flexibility, cardiorespiratory fitness, immune function and general stress management. There is also a growing database of the psychological effects of Tai Chi & Qi Gong which has been shown to provide an immediate source of relaxation and mental calmness, with scientific evidence showing positive improvements to medical conditions such as hypertension, depression, anxiety disorders, as well as cardiovascular disease and insulin resistance. This research has been summarized and critically evaluated in recent medical reviews around the world including Harvard Medical School. As the value of daily Tai Chi & Qi Gong practice comes into focus for modern medicine, there will be ongoing projects to further explore the mechanisms by which Tai Chi & Qi Gong benefits the individual. While specific results are quantifiable, the challenge for researchers is to understand how and why Tai Chi & Qi Gong are so effective in improving such a broad array of health issues. This approach to healing has already been explored and practiced in Traditional Chinese Medicine for over 5000 years.
But does it go beyond science and medicine? In Taoism (the ancient folk religion of China), it is believed that Taiji is the mother of Yin and Yang, a primordial consciousness that also causes the grass to grow, the earth to rotate, and all the things that happen in all of creation. This is a tremendous power. It is the power to create life. And the more Tai Chi practitioners and other people get acquainted with that power the more they are able to internalize, utilize and flow with that power. Like the legendary Yogis of the Himalayas, Tai Chi & Qi Gong masters discovered how to tap into the source of the cosmos, and through daily practice universal healing energy can be awakened within each and every one of us. The secret lies in the quality of relaxation in your body and calmness in your mind.
THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF TAI CHI
By Harvard Medical School Health Publications
Published May 2009 – Updated December 2015
This gentle form of exercise can help maintain strength, flexibility, and balance, and could be the perfect activity for the rest of your life. Tai chi is often described as “meditation in motion,” but it might well be called “medication in motion.” There is growing evidence that this mind-body practice, which originated in China as a martial art, has value in treating or preventing many health problems. And you can get started even if you aren’t in top shape or the best of health. In this low-impact, slow-motion exercise, you go without pausing through a series of motions named for animal actions — for example, “white crane spreads its wings” — or martial arts moves, such as “box both ears.” As you move, you breathe deeply and naturally, focusing your attention — as in some kinds of meditation — on your bodily sensations. Tai chi differs from other types of exercise in several respects. The movements are usually circular and never forced, the muscles are relaxed rather than tensed, the joints are not fully extended or bent, and connective tissues are not stretched. Tai chi can be easily adapted for anyone, from the most fit to people confined to wheelchairs or recovering from surgery. “A growing body of carefully conducted research is building a compelling case for tai chi as an adjunct to standard medical treatment for the prevention and rehabilitation of many conditions commonly associated with age,” says Peter M. Wayne, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Tai Chi and Mind-Body Research Program at Harvard Medical School’s Osher Research Center. An adjunct therapy is one that’s used together with primary medical treatments, either to address a disease itself or its primary symptoms, or, more generally, to improve a patient’s functioning and quality of life.
These days tai chi is mostly practiced for health and relaxation, however, before 20th century its was regarded in China as a powerful martial art. But you don’t need to subscribe to or learn much about tai chi’s roots in Chinese philosophy to enjoy its health benefits. The following, concepts can help make sense of its approach:
Qi — an energy force (bioelectricity) that flows through the body; tai chi is said to unblock and encourage the proper flow of qi.
Yin and yang — opposing elements that make up the universe that need to be kept in harmony. Tai chi is said to promote this balance.
Tai Chi (Taijiquan) – translated as ‘supreme fist’ or ‘fist of the mind’, a series of gentle standing movements emphasising the mind controlling the body through relaxation while avoiding brute force muscle strength, resulting in calmness, relaxation and improving the circulation of blood and energy throughout the whole body.
Qi Gong (Chi Kung) – translated as “breath work” or “energy work,” this consists of a few minutes of gentle breathing sometimes combined with movement. The idea is to help relax the mind and mobilize the body’s energy. Qigong may be practiced standing, sitting, or lying down.
Don’t be intimidated by the language.
Names like Yang, Wu, and Cheng are given to various branches of tai chi, in honor of people who devised the sets of movements called forms. Certain programs emphasize the martial arts aspect of tai chi rather than its potential for healing and stress reduction. In some forms, you learn long sequences of movements, while others involve shorter series and more focus on breathing and meditation. The name is less important than finding an approach that matches your interests and needs.
Tai chi in motion
A tai chi class might include these parts: Warm-ups or easy motions, such as shoulder circles, turning the head from side to side, or rocking back and forth, help you to loosen your muscles and joints and focus on your breath and body. Instruction and practice of tai chi forms. Short forms — forms are sets of movements — may include a dozen or fewer movements; long forms may include hundreds. Different styles require smaller or larger movements. A short form with smaller, slower movements is usually recommended at the beginning, especially if you’re older or not in good condition. Tai chi, although now slow and relaxed, was originally a martial art, so the movements can also look like attacking and defending movements, although this is not emphasised in tai chi for health and relaxation. Qigong, however, does not look like martial arts at all.
The benefits of tai chi are generally greatest if you begin before you develop a chronic illness or functional limitations. Tai chi is very safe, and no fancy equipment is needed, so it’s easy to get started.
Check with your doctor
If you have a limiting musculoskeletal problem or medical condition — or if you take medications that can make you dizzy or lightheaded — check with your doctor before starting tai chi. Given its excellent safety record, chances are that you’ll be encouraged to try it.
Consider observing and taking a class.
Taking a class may be the best way to learn tai chi. Seeing a teacher in action, getting feedback, and experiencing the camaraderie of a group are all pluses. Most teachers will let you observe the class first to see if you feel comfortable with the approach and atmosphere. Instruction can be individualized. Ask about classes at your local Y, senior center, or community education center. The Arthritis Foundation can tell you whether its tai chi program, a 12-movement, easy-to-learn sequence, is offered in your area. If you’d rather learn at home, you can buy or rent videos geared to your interests and fitness needs (see “Selected resources”). Although there are some excellent tai chi books, it can be difficult to appreciate the flow of movements from still photos or illustrations.
Talk to the instructor
There’s no standard training or licensing for tai chi instructors, so you’ll need to rely on recommendations from friends or clinicians and, of course, your own judgment. Look for an experienced teacher who will accommodate individual health concerns or levels of coordination and fitness.
Choose loose-fitting clothes that don’t restrict your range of motion. You can practice barefoot or in lightweight, comfortable, and flexible shoes. Tai chi shoes are available, but ones you find in your closet will probably work fine. You’ll need shoes that won’t slip and can provide enough support to help you balance, but have soles thin enough to allow you to feel the ground. Running shoes, designed to propel you forward, are usually unsuitable.
Gauge your progress
Most beginning programs and tai chi interventions tested in medical research last at least 12 weeks, with instruction once or twice a week and practice at home. By the end of that time, you should know whether you enjoy tai chi, and you may already notice positive physical and psychological changes.
No pain, big gains
Although tai chi is slow and gentle and doesn’t leave you breathless, it addresses the key components of fitness — muscle strength, flexibility, balance, and, to a lesser degree, aerobic conditioning. Here’s some of the evidence: Muscle strength. Tai chi can improve both lower-body strength and upper-body strength. When practiced regularly, tai chi can be comparable to resistance training and brisk walking. “Although you aren’t working with weights or resistance bands, the unsupported arm exercise involved in tai chi strengthens your upper body,” says internist Dr. Gloria Yeh, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. “Tai chi strengthens both the lower and upper extremities and also the core muscles of the back and abdomen.”
Tai chi can boost upper- and lower-body flexibility as well as strength, bone density and control.
Tai chi improves balance and, according to some studies, reduces falls. Proprioception — the ability to sense the position of one’s body in space — declines with age. Tai chi helps train this sense, which is a function of sensory neurons in the inner ear and stretch receptors in the muscles and ligaments. Tai chi also improves muscle strength and flexibility, which makes it easier to recover from a stumble. Fear of falling can make you more likely to fall; some studies have found that tai chi training helps reduce that fear.
Depending on the speed and size of the movements, tai chi can provide some aerobic benefits. If your clinician advises a more intense cardio workout with a higher heart rate than tai chi can offer, you may need something more aerobic as well.
© 1900-2018 Harvard University Health Publications
QIGONG – MINDFUL EXERCISE AND MENTAL HEALTH
By Helen Lavretsky, MD, MS, Oxford University Press
Published May 2013
Mindful exercise has been shown to provide an immediate source of relaxation and mental quiescence. Scientific evidence has shown that medical conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, depression, and anxiety disorders respond favorably to mindful exercises. There is a growing database of the physiological effects of mindful exercise and meditation. Qigong has been shown to promote relaxation and decrease sympathetic output, and to benefit anxiety, depression, blood pressure, and recovery from immune-mediated diseases. Qigong has been shown to improve immune function and vaccine-response. These practices have also been shown to increase blood levels of endorphins and baroreflex sensitivity, and to reduce levels of inflammatory markers (CRP), adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), and cortisol, implicating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis as a mediator of stress and anxiety reduction. Brain wave or electroencephalopathy (EEG) studies of participants undergoing. Qigong and Tai Chi exercise have found increased frontal EEG alpha, beta, and theta wave activity, suggesting increased relaxation and attentiveness. These changes have not been found in aerobic exercise controls.
There is currently extensive use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) — also known as integrative or mind-body medicine — in the United States to sustain well-being in both aging baby boomers and in children and adolescents. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) defines CAM therapies as “a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not generally considered part of conventional medicine,” with “conventional” medicine being defined as the approaches used by clinicians in the routine daily practice of Western or allopathic medicine that are within the currently accepted standard of care.
The most recent comprehensive assessment of CAM use in the United States found that roughly 30% of US adults had used at least one CAM therapy within the past year. In addition, Americans make more visits to CAM providers each year than to primary care physicians and spend at least as much money on out-of-pocket expenses for CAM services as they do for all conventional physician services combined. Patients with mental disorders turn to CAM for relief of symptoms of anxiety, mood, insomnia, impaired cognition, and perceived stress. The most commonly used CAM techniques include prayer for health and the use of multivitamin supplementation. Given widespread use of CAM services among patients, there is an urgent need for greater awareness and familiarity with its applications and outcomes.
As baby boomers age and increase use of CAM, mental health professionals require a working knowledge of CAM techniques intended to address late life mood disorders. An estimated 33-88% of older adults will use CAM therapies, including those with late-life depression and bipolar disorder. CAM treatments of mood and anxiety disorders include acupuncture, deep breathing exercises, massage therapy, meditation, naturopathy, and yoga.
Complementary and alternative medicine encompasses a number of techniques collectively known as mindful exercise (e.g. yoga, Qigong, and Tai Chi), or meditation. This ‘physical exercise executed with a profound inwardly directed contemplative focus’ is increasingly utilized for improving psychological well-being.
Mindful physical exercise contains the following key elements:
- A non-competitive, non-judgmental meditative component,
- Mental focus on muscular movement and movement awareness combined with a low to moderate level of muscular activity,
- Centered breathing,
- A focus on anatomic alignment (i.e., spine, trunk, and pelvis) and proper physical form,
- Energy centric awareness of individual flow of intrinsic body energy, otherwise known as prana, life force, qi, or Kundalini.
Yogic meditation (Kirtan Kriya) for stressed family dementia caregivers resulted in lower levels of depressive symptoms, and improvements in mental health and cognitive functioning. Participants in the yogic meditation group showed a 43% improvement in telomerase activity after 12 minutes of daily practice for 8 weeks, compared with 3.7% in relaxation music control participants. This suggests that brief daily meditation practices can benefit stress-induced cellular aging. Kirtan Kriya reversed the pattern of increased NF-?B-related transcription of pro-inflammatory cytokines, and decreased IRF1-related transcription of innate antiviral response genes in distressed dementia caregivers. This reinforces the relationship between stress reduction and beneficial immune response. In the same study, nine caregivers received brain FDG-PET scans at baseline and post-intervention. When comparing the regional cerebral metabolism between groups, significant differences over time were found in different patterns of regional cerebral metabolism suggesting brain-fitness effect different from passive relaxation.
Studies of meditation also report decreased sympathetic nervous activity and increased parasympathetic activity associated with decreased heart rate and blood pressure, decreased respiratory rate, and decreased oxygen metabolism. Functional neuroimaging studies have been able to corroborate these subjective experiences by demonstrating the up-regulation in brain regions of internalized attention and emotion processing with meditation.
In a recent systematic review of neurobiological and clinical features of mindfulness meditations, Chiesa and Serretti (2015) provided evidence on the neurobiological changes related to Mindfulness Meditation (MM) practice in psychiatric disorders. Meditation practices that focus on concentration of an object or mantra seem to elicit the activation of fronto-parietal networks of internalized attention; meditation techniques that focus on breathing may elicit additional activation of paralimbic regions of insula and anterior cingulate; and meditation techniques that focus on emotion may elicit fronto-limbic activation. Future studies will be needed to disentangle the brain activation patterns related to different meditation traditions.
Given the noninvasive nature of mindful exercise and meditation, these exercises are an appropriate option for consumers and clinicians, particularly for conditions that have been examined in controlled studies. Significant evidence supports the assertion that Tai Chi and Qi Gong and yoga and meditation can improve physical and mental health, and quality of life. Ethical considerations should be taken into account when practicing or recommending spiritual interventions by healthcare professionals to respect patients’ beliefs in choosing mind-body interventions.
Dr. Helen Lavretsky is a Professor of Psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, a geriatric psychiatrist with the research interest in geriatric depression and caregiver stress, as well as complementary and alternative medicine and mind-body approaches to treatment and prevention of disorders in older adults. She is co-editor of Late-Life Mood Disorders with Martha Sajatovic and Charles Reynolds. She is a recipient of the two Career Development awards from NIMH and other prestigious research awards. Her current research include clinical and translational studies of geriatric depression and caregiver stress, as well as complementary and alternative interventions for stress reduction in older adults.
© 2006-2018 Oxford University Press