The Science of Tai Chi & Qigong as Whole Person Health

October 9, 2023 Joe Brady

Advancing the Integration of Mind/Body Practices in Contemporary Healthcare

Here is an overview of the latest research presented at Harvard Medical School’s Osher Center for Integrative Health. The two-day conference served as a profound intersection where Eastern traditions met Western science, showcasing the transformative power of Tai Chi and Qigong in promoting successful aging and whole-person health. Distinguished professionals, including esteemed researchers, medical experts, and master practitioners, converged to unravel the dynamic tapestry of ancient practices, scientific innovation, and their synergistic effects.

On Day 1, pivotal discussions and interactive sessions highlighted the multidimensional benefits of Tai Chi and Qigong, emphasizing their pivotal role in enhancing physical, psychological, and social well-being. Attendees dived into the nuanced realms of these practices, exploring their impacts on cognitive function, mental health, and community wellness. The day unveiled the blossoming alliance of traditional wisdom and contemporary research, opening vistas of integrative health.

Day 2 accentuated this narrative, unveiling robust conversations around the scientific exploration of traditional East Asian concepts like Qi. The day was earmarked by enlightening sessions illuminating the role of these practices in chronic disease management, mental health enhancement, and community engagement, particularly among diverse populations. The discussions underscored the pivotal role of standardizing training and credentialing of instructors, ensuring the integrity and efficacy of practice.

Together, these dialogues underscored a “Tao” or pathway to successful aging and whole-person health, portraying Tai Chi and Qigong not just as physical exercises, but as holistic experiences that weave through the intricate layers of human existence — body, mind, and spirit. They highlighted an emergent paradigm where age is not a barrier, but a journey of wisdom, and health is a harmonious dance of well-being. 

Key Takeaways

Holistic Health: Tai Chi and Qigong are gaining recognition for their role in promoting holistic health, and bridging gaps between physiological, psychological, and emotional wellness.

Virtual Adaptation: The adaptability of Tai Chi to virtual formats has been validated, with positive feedback and increased attendance.

Specialized Applications: The practices are customized for specific health concerns and populations, showcasing their versatility.

Scientific Backing: Continued research and evolving scientific literature are cementing the role of Tai Chi and Qigong in health and wellness.

Integration of Eastern and Western Concepts: A significant focus on blending traditional Eastern practices like Tai Chi and Qigong with Western medical and psychological insights.

Diversity and Inclusion: Efforts to make Tai Chi and Qigong accessible and beneficial to diverse communities, with a focus on people of color and women.

Research and Development: Ongoing research on the health benefits of Tai Chi and Qigong, including mental health, chronic pain management, and cognitive functions.

Credentialing and Training: Discussions around the need for standardized training and credentialing for instructors to ensure safe and effective practice.

The conference was filled with rich discussions, practical demonstrations, and in-depth examinations of the role and potential of Tai Chi and Qigong in contemporary health and wellness. The conference opened with a focus on whole-person health and the integrative benefits of Tai Chi and Qigong, emphasizing their multifaceted impact on physiological, psychological, and emotional well-being. Many sessions revolved around the intersection of traditional concepts like Qi and modern principles of biophysics and developmental biology, particularly in presentations by Michael Levin of Tufts University and hosted by Helene Langevin.

In the article, we will attempt to provide an overview of all the sessions to give readers a cross-section of the very latest research on Tai Chi and Qigong.

Key Sessions

Whole Person Health: Integration Across Physiological Systems

Speakers underscored the interconnectivity of various physiological systems and highlighted Tai Chi and Qigong’s role in promoting cross-talk among these systems for holistic health. The session illuminated insights into the psycho-physiological interactions involved in connective tissue, immune, and nervous system health.

Interoceptive Awareness of Breath, Body, and Movement

This session delved into the neurological underpinnings of interoceptive awareness – a key component of mindful movement. The speakers elaborated on its connection with Tai Chi and how the practice aids in establishing a harmonious interaction between mind and body.

Virtual Tai Chi Delivery

The adaptation of Tai Chi training for remote delivery due to pandemic restrictions was discussed. Evidence presented indicated higher attendance and satisfaction rates in remote sessions, suggesting virtual Tai Chi can be an effective alternative to in-person training.

Tai Chi/Qigong for Unique Medical Populations

Innovative applications of Tai Chi/Qigong were demonstrated, highlighting their adaptability and efficacy for improving cognitive function in older adults with impairment, treating depressive symptoms, and assisting caregivers of individuals with Parkinson’s disease.

State of the Science in Tai Chi & Qigong Research Part 1

An overview of current scientific literature and ongoing studies outlined the evidence supporting Tai Chi and Qigong in health, emphasizing areas like fall prevention, cognitive health, neurophysiological mechanisms, and mental health.

Implementation of Mind-Body Practices in Contemporary Healthcare

Challenges and successes in integrating Tai Chi and Qigong into contemporary healthcare, particularly within the Veterans Affairs medical system, were examined. This session underscored the growing recognition and adoption of these practices in mainstream medical settings.

The first day of the conference painted a vivid picture of the evolving landscape of Tai Chi and Qigong in modern health and wellness. From their role in enhancing whole-person health to the emerging virtual delivery formats and specialized applications, these ancient practices are carving a niche in contemporary healthcare, backed by an expanding body of scientific evidence. 

Day 2: Session Highlights:

Discussions around the intersection of traditional concepts like Qi and modern principles of biophysics and developmental biology, hosted by Helene Langevin.

Explorations in Body Intelligence, Examples from Western and East Asian Medicine

This session explored unique boundaries between traditional concepts, such as Qi, and leading-edge modern principles of biophysics and developmental biology. Specific topics will include electromorphogenesis, meridians and acupoints, and the scientific exploration of traditional East Asian medicine concepts such as Qi. 

Michael Levin

Michael Levin received his Ph.D. in genetics from Harvard University. He is currently Distinguished Professor and Vannevar Bush Chair in the Biology department at Tufts University and serves as director of the Tufts Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology. His work on left-right asymmetric body structures is on Nature’s list of 100 Milestones of Developmental Biology of the Century. His lab studies unconventional embodiments of mind, using a combination of developmental biophysics, computer science, and cognitive science. Applications of the work on the collective intelligence of body cells range across birth defects, regenerative medicine, cancer, synthetic bioengineering, and artificial intelligence.

Andrew Ahn

Chief Medical/Science Officer at Labfront – a physiological research platform – and an affiliate faculty at BWH Osher Research for Integrative Medicine. He is a physician-scientist with an interest in marrying high-tech with healing art with the ultimate goal of advancing health and wellness.

Peter Wayne, PhD,

Researcher and practitioner of integrative and mind-body therapies. He is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. He also directs the Mind-Body-Movement Laboratory and is Associate Director for the NIH-funded Research Fellowship in Integrative Medicine. Dr. Wayne’s research evaluates how mind-body and related therapies clinically impact aging and chronic health conditions, as well as the physiological and psychological mechanisms underlying observed therapeutic effects. Dr. Wayne has more than 40 years of training experience in Tai Chi/Qigong, and is an internationally recognized teacher of these practices.

There was so much to unpack from these presentations that look to future newsletters for more details. If any videos are made available we will provide them. 

Tai Chi and Whole-Person Health: Real-World Evidence in Older Adults

This was our session Joe Brady and Jacqui Shumway!!!

Successful aging involves nurturing the health of the whole person, encompassing physical, functional, social, and psychological well-being. Tai Chi, an ancient Chinese martial art and mind-body practice, has gained recognition as a potential pathway to achieving holistic health. A recent study conducted by Joseph Brady, an adjunct professor at the University of Denver, and chair of the research department at the Colorado Chinese Medicine University, and Jacqueline Shumway, of the Osher Institute at DU, and a former faculty member at the Colorado School of Traditional Chinese Medicine,  sheds light on the real-world impact of Tai Chi on older adults. Their groundbreaking research has attracted attention and led to an invitation to present their findings at Harvard Medical School’s, Osher Center for Integrative Medicine in September.

While previous randomized control trials had demonstrated the multiple benefits of Tai Chi, concerns persist regarding the translation of these findings to everyday life. Often, interventions that prove effective in controlled environments may not yield the same results in community settings.

To address this gap, Brady and Shumway conducted a cross-sectional study involving 163 older adults who actively practiced Tai Chi within community programs. The participants, with an average age of 64.7 years, were assessed using PROMIS-29 v2.1 scores, which evaluated various domains of whole-person health, including physical function, anxiety, depression, fatigue, sleep, social function, pain, cognitive function, and self-efficacy.

Analyzing the results, the researchers calculated T-scores for each domain. Notably, these scores indicated that older adults engaged in community-based Tai Chi programs exhibited markers of whole-person health that were typical of individuals who were nearly half their age.

The implications of this study are significant suggesting that Tai Chi programs successfully translate from controlled clinical trials to real-world community settings. This finding provides reassurance that Tai Chi may serve as a practical and effective strategy for successful aging, one that resonates with the interests, beliefs, and philosophical orientation of older adults. The study also found significantly larger improvements in whole-person health observed among Tai Chi practitioners compared to sedentary older adults in the community. The results of this research have broad implications for future studies and the integration of Tai Chi into community programs. Further investigation is warranted to explore the long-term effects of Tai Chi, elucidate the underlying mechanisms that contribute to its benefits, and establish guidelines for optimal implementation across diverse community settings. By expanding our understanding of the impact of Tai Chi on whole-person health, we can pave the way for enhanced well-being and successful aging in older adults.

The work of Joseph Brady and Jacqueline Shumway demonstrates the potential of Tai Chi to foster whole-person health in older adults. Their research serves as a stepping stone towards a deeper appreciation and integration of this ancient practice into modern society, promoting a comprehensive approach to aging well.

Experiential Session 02: Anita Vestal and Michelle Greenwell shared innovative adaptations of Tai Chi and Qigong for medical populations.

Panel on Qigong, Arts, and Social Justice: Explored the role of Qigong in supporting wellbeing and social justice, focusing on higher education and social justice spaces.

Oral Abstract Session 02: 

Discussions on Tai Chi’s effects on mental health, its therapeutic effects on Type 2 Diabetes, and other clinical studies.

Panel on Instructors’ Contributions to TCQ Research: Addressed the partnership between instructors and the medical community in advancing the science of Tai Chi and Qigong.

Experiential Session 03: Focused on Tai Chi and Qigong programs for chronic pain management, eye health, and exploring the collective relaxation response in group practice.

Diverse Community TCQ Practices: Explored the integration of TCQ in diverse communities, focusing on mental health prevention strategies and engagement in places like Harlem, Philadelphia, and Camden, NJ.

Oral Abstract Session 03: Included discussions on adapting Tai Chi for Latinx older adults, integration of mind-body practices in healthcare, and Tai Chi for chronic neck pain among nurses.

Panel on TCQ Instructor Credentialing: Discussed the need for national or international guidelines for credentialing Tai Chi and Qigong instructors.

Experiential Session 04: Included Tai Chi and Qigong for chronic pain management, medical applications, and Qigong for mental health.

Qigong for Depressive Symptoms: Explored the potential of Qigong as a component for treating depressive symptoms, integrated with Western psychotherapy.

Oral Abstract Session 04: Featured discussions on adapting inclusive Tai Chi in African American/Black and Hispanic communities, Tai Chi’s effects on cognitive function in older adults, and other topics.

Panel on Women in Tai Chi: Discussed the role and contributions of women in Tai Chi and Qigong, the lack of female instructors, and the benefits of these practices for women’s health.

Plenary Session 05: Summarized the state of the evidence for Tai Chi and Qigong in health, focusing on immune function, cancer, musculoskeletal pain, and cardio-pulmonary conditions. Moderated by Wolf Mehling.

Closing Remarks: Presented by Peter Wayne and Gloria Yeh, wrapping up the day’s discussions and presentations.