Centuries’ worth of anecdotal evidence attests to the medical benefits of qigong and t’ai chi, two closely related Chinese health and fitness practices. And now the clinical evidence Westerners like to see is piling up as well.
What are t’ai chi and qigong?
T’ai chi is better known in the U.S. than qigong is. “But t’ai chi is actually a form of qigong,” says Francesco Garripoli, president of the Qigong Institute and producer of the PBS-aired documentary Qigong: Ancient Chinese Healing for the 21st Century. “It came out of several families of qigong practice — that’s why they go together.”
Both practices look sort of like karate in slow motion. They combine gentle, meditative physical movements and breathing techniques that help stimulate the flow of qi or chi (life force or vital energy), promoting better physical, mental and emotional health. For thousands of years, people in China have been practicing qigong (chee-gung) to improve and maintain their health and well-being.
There are thousands of styles of qigong and t’ai chi. Some focus on overall health, but practitioners can also prescribe forms or specific qigong exercises to detox or heal specific organs, muscles or parts of the body. “Some families in China historically would pay a lot of money to some master to get their own qigong forms,” says Garripoli.
The healing power of qigong and t’ai chi
These ancient approaches to fitness and wellness have brought positive health changes to people all over the world. Many have testified that qigong cured them of chronic pain, improved their balance and focus, boosted their immunity, helped them manage stress, fought cancer, lowered blood pressure or relieved insomnia. The New York Times even published an essay recently by a woman claiming qigong helped her regain her health after a stroke.
“I suffer from a lot of headaches, mostly caused by tension in my neck muscles,” says Cathy Bueti, a 39-year-old breast cancer survivor from Brewster, N.Y. “Doing qigong instantly loosens my muscles and helps relieve the headache pain. I also suffer from panic attacks, which increased in frequency after my cancer experience. When I perform the qigong exercises, it makes me feel calm and returns me to the moment, which helps me break out of the panic and anxiety.”
Studies confirm the medical benefits of chi practices
With so much anecdotal evidence of qigong’s benefits, it’s not surprising that formal studies have been done as well — more than 2,000, according to the Qigong Institute, which maintains a database of such research.
“There is enough research to convince the general public of the benefits of qigong and t’ai chi, validated by systematic reviews of literature on these modalities,” says Dr. Kevin Chen, associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine Center for Integrative Medicine.
Highlights of recent studies include:
A review of clinical trials of t’ai chi and qigong in older adults reported in the March 2009 issue of the Western Journal of Nursing Research notes that qigong improves physical functioning, limits fall risk, alleviates symptoms of depression and anxiety, and lowers blood pressure in older adults. Last year, that same journal reported that qigong improved the physical health of middle-aged women.
According to the February 2009 issue of The Journal of Nursing, “evidence-based research supports the argument that qigong improves cardiovascular-respiratory function and lipid profile, decreases blood sugar, and relieves anxiety and depression.”
Meanwhile, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), part of the National Institutes of Health, has funded many studies related to both practices, linking t’ai chi to improved sleep quality in older adults, increased immunity to shingles virus in older adults, and healthy bone mineral density in postmenopausal women.
Clinical trials are underway investigating the use of t’ai chi for fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis of the knee and rheumatoid arthritis.
Researchers are studying t’ai chi’s benefits for cancer survivors and patients with bone loss, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and other conditions.
How to choose between qigong and t’ai chi
“Different people like different things. That’s why there are different flavors of ice cream,” says Garripoli. For people who like structure and want to learn a structured sequence of forms, there’s tai chi. It tends to be taught in a committed way over a sequence of time, targeting discipline and focus. For someone who doesn’t have that kind of time commitment and is more health-oriented, there’s qigong. “With qigong, people can take a few classes and walk away with something valuable,” he says.
Tips for getting started with qigong or t’ai chi
If you’re the kind of person who wants flexibility and the ability to exercise in the privacy of your own home, a DVD is probably your best bet. Gaiam has produced several award-winning instructional qigong DVDs and t’ai chi DVDs with beautiful production quality and easy-to-follow how-to’s; and others are available through the Qigong Institute, the National Qigong Association and the American T’ai chi Association.
If you prefer the social interaction and expert face-to-face instruction, you can take a class. Check out local martial arts schools, health clubs, recreation departments, community centers and/or YMCAs. Observe a class and meet the instructor before signing up, and be sure to discuss any physical limitations or health concerns you might have prior to beginning.