Posts Tagged ‘health benefits of tai chi’

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.”

Tai Chi — Medication in Motion

The article I wrote “Tai Chi: Medication in Motion” appears in the January 2011 issue of American Legion magazine.

The science of Tai Chi is just now catching up with (and justifying) what Tai Chi masters have known for centuries – this mind-body practice, which originated in China as a martial art, leads to longer life, more vigor and flexibility, better balance and mobility, and a sense of well being. Cutting-edge research now supports the long-standing claims that Tai Chi has a favorable impact on the health of the heart, bones, nerves and muscles, immune system, and the mind. In fact, Tai Chi might well be called “medication in motion.”

Tai chi combines meditation with slow, gentle, graceful movements, as well as deep breathing and relaxation to move vital energy (what the Chinese call qi) throughout the body. “Tai Chi can heighten bodily awareness and inner focus, make body movements more graceful and efficient, enhance natural breathing, and help you attain peace of mind,” says Dr. Peter Wayne, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, who has practiced and studied Tai Chi for more than 35 years. “Our fast-paced, multi-tasking, over-stimulated, more-is-better, Type-A, Western lifestyle can be counteracted by the ‘meditation in motion’ of Tai Chi.”

New research provides insight into the underlying physiological mechanisms that explain how Tai Chi works. This knowledge has enabled Dr. Wayne and his colleagues to shape the essential elements of Tai Chi into a program to use in the rehabilitation — and prevention — of many health conditions. They have developed and successfully tested a simplified Tai Chi protocol in a number of clinical trials. A 12-week controlled study of Tai Chi in heart failure found that the Tai Chi participants were able to walk longer and faster and had improved quality of life. What’s more, they had reduced blood levels of B-type natriuretic protein, an indicator of heart failure.

A newly completed Harvard randomized controlled trial of post-menopausal women diagnosed with low bone density used bone density markers and computerized motion analysis to quantify how Tai Chi affects weight-bearing in the skeleton. The preliminary results show that Tai Chi arrested bone loss in the hip and spine compared to women who had usual care, says Dr. Wayne.

Many other studies have shown the health benefits of Tai Chi. A Harvard review of 26 studies in English or Chinese of Tai Chi and high blood pressure found that Tai Chi lowered blood pressure in 85% of the trials. Tai Chi has also been shown to improve balance, reduce falls in older women, and increase bone strength – all important ways to prevent fractures from low bone density.

And studies show Tai Chi may be effective for rehabilitation and prevention of chronic low back pain, can reduce the pain of knee osteoarthritis, can reduce stress, enhance mood and sleep, and may strengthen the immune system, which improves the body’s resistance to disease.

“The integration of Tai Chi as an adjunct into the medical world can help prevent the progression of many chronic diseases,” says Dr. Wayne.