8 Active Ingredients of Tai Chi

How does a mind-body therapy like Tai Chi work?

In modern medicine, drugs are prescribed because of their active ingredients. Well-defined, laboratory-synthesized chemical compounds, such as ibuprofen, the active ingredient in Advil or Motrin, are specifically designed to impact physiological pathways to elicit a predictable, desired effect—in the case of ibuprofen, blocking the sensation of pain and reducing inflammation and fever.

Tai Chi is obviously different than drug therapy. It has no well-defined, single chemical ingredient, and is more a mixture of exercise, meditative, and psychosocial components.

A writer-colleague, Dan Ferber, addresses this issue in a new article in Kung Fu magazine in his fascinating interview with Tai Chi Master Yang Yang, Director of the Center for Taiji Studies in Champaign, Illinois, who spoke last October at the First International Symposium on Exercise Therapy, which took place at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Yang Yang notes that mind-body treatments are considerably more complex than treatment with pharmaceuticals: “The effectiveness of a new drug is typically tested in a trial that is double-blinded, which means that the subjects themselves do not know which treatment they received. In a trial of taiji and other mind-body modalities, the subjects will know which treatment they have received. Gold-standard pharmaceutical trials are also placebo-controlled, meaning that patients receive either drug or a sugar-pill that they can’t distinguish from the drug. Placebo controls are difficult to achieve for trials of mind-body interventions. Unlike a drug, which acts via a single cellular mechanism, mind-body interventions like taiji exert their effects in multiple ways simultaneously.”

He notes recent research by Drs. Peter Wayne and Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard Medical School into the effects of Tai Chi on musculoskeletal strength and flexibility training, deep breathing, mindfulness, visualization and intention, and massage or gentle touch, psychosocial interaction, ritual and spirituality.

“Which are the effective ingredients? Do they work together? Is it possible to create a placebo, or ‘sham’ taiji intervention to assess the efficacy of taiji versus a placebo? Is it necessary? All these questions remain to be answered,” says Yang Yang.

In a recent conversation, Wayne told me “for a variety of reasons, I have found it useful to think of and teach Tai Chi within a framework of active ingredients. My colleagues and I have come to call the ‘8 Active Ingredients’ of Tai Chi. They are: Awareness, Mindfulness, and Focused Attention; Intention, Belief and Expectation; Dynamic and Structural Integration, Form and Function; Moderate Effort and Relax Actively; Natural, Freer Breathing; Psychosocial Support; Alternative Health Paradigm; and Ritual and Repetition of Practice. We use this conceptual framework to evaluate the clinical benefits of Tai Chi, to explore its underlying mechanisms of action, and to shape the way we teach Tai Chi in our trials.”

In practice, each of these active ingredients is interdependent and interwoven with the others. For example, you can not substantially change your breathing without altering your posture, neuromuscular dynamics, inner awareness, intention, and mood. As Wayne says “just as white light shining through a prism leads to a rainbow of colors, the 8 Active Ingredients allow you to appreciate the multiple components that make up the whole of Tai Chi.”

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