Health Benefits of Taijiquan Practice
Taijiquan is a form of traditional Chinese healing and martial art and has been embraced worldwide. It is characterized by movements that are low impact, flowing, circular, and easy to learn. Outwardly graceful, the movements require coordination and synchronization of a calm but alert mind, and a relaxed body. In conjunction with deep abdominal breathing, the practice of these flowing movements can offer body/mind benefits to practitioners, with virtually no negative side effects (Mayo Clinic Staff 2012).
Beyond contributing to overall good health for people of all ages and levels of fitness, there is abundant evidence to support that the regular practice of Tai Chi Chuan offers potential therapeutic benefit for individuals with various types of chronic health conditions including depression; fibromyalgia; lower-limb disabilities; cardiopulmonary difficulties; multiple sclerosis; cancer; mood dysfunction, Parkinson’s disease; severe rheumatoid arthritis; stroke, and vestibular disorder. It also has positive physical and psychological effects for individuals with disability-related chronic diseases and pain experience. Medical community world-wide has been advocating the practice of Tai Chi Chuan as a way to regulate blood pressure; reduce stress; improve cardiovascular health; alleviate various types of musculoskeletal pain, improve sleep, and enhance the immune system. Not only has the National Health Institutes (NIH) listed Tai Chi practice as form of Complementary Medicine modalities (https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/tai-chi-and-qi-gong-in-depth), the USVA has also recognized Tai Chi practice as an appropriate wellness and intervention program for all veterans (https://www.va.gov/wholehealth/)
On December 17th 2020, the United Nations Educational, Scientific ad Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed Tai Chi (or Taijiquan) on the list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
So, what is there a plausible western scientific explanation for the benefits Tai Chi practice is able to offer?
Model of the spine as a central load-bearing structure
Let’s begin by looking at a modern model of the spine. We were all taught that the spinal column is made up of a stack of vertebrae and inter-vertebral discs that comprise the central load-bearing structure of the body. In fact, the lumbar vertebrae in particular are thought to support the majority of the body’s weight and any additional load which a person chooses to lift. However, upon closer analysis, the vertebral bodies contain very little of the trabecular framework or compact bone density one would expect to find in load bearing structures. They are mostly cancellous, spongy bone. The articular processes are where the densest bone is found.
Tensegrity System with the spine as a mast.
This led Robbie in 1977 to conclude that the soft tissues around the spine, when placed under the right amount and type of tension, could actually lift each vertebra off the one below creating a sling effect (Robbie 1977). From this observation he described a “tensegrity system” in which the spine functions more like the mast of a ship rather than a stack of blocks, with the muscles and tendons comprising a continuous tensional system. Since the bones contain both compressive and tensile fibers, with the attachment of the tendons and muscles to the skeletal system we have a three-dimensional tensegrity system that works to support and to move the body. This tensegrity system becomes self-supporting similar to a geodesic dome. The better this system works, the more able it is to absorb shock without damage. Any incoming force is directed away from the point of impact and converted into information rather than to tissue damage (Ingber 1998). This concept helps explain why flexible and well-organized muscles and fascia reduce the incidence and severity of injuries. We have all worked with injured patients whose lack of flexibility in one area created a compensatory reaction in another area of the body resulting in secondary complaint. Indeed, just as crimping one strut on a geodesic dome weakens the entire structure, whatever restricts the flexibility of one part of our body’s tensegrity system affects it all.
Acute tissue damage results in wound repair
So, what happens if an incoming force exceeds our body’s ability to dissipate the energy completely? Acute tissue damage results, followed by wound repair. This begins with the formation of a clot containing fibrin filaments. At first these filaments are laid down in a random fashion. In immobilized tissues, these randomly oriented filaments persist and can form a web connecting the myofascial layers of adjacent muscles. This results in adhesions being formed which restrict muscle movement as described by Cyriax and Rolf. If however, the wounded tissue is gently stressed along normal tension lines, the fibrin fibers that are not under tension will dissolve first. This will allow the fibroblasts to lay down collagen along the lines of tension resulting in improved strength and flexibility while reducing the formation of adhesions (Weiss 1961). Therefore, we can see that gentle and appropriate movements enhance proper tissue healing.
Chronic structural imbalance
As a consequence of chronic structural imbalance (over 90 days duration), the connective tissue fibers may collect around the ends of tendons and ligaments. This shortens the tendons and ligaments while causing additional strain to the muscles and joints. The resultant decrease in mobility may also diminish local circulation leading to dehydration of the local intercellular matrix. By slowly and appropriately stretching the involved muscles, we provide a stimulus to the Golgi tendon organs located in the muscles insertions. This can improve muscle tone locally and overall neuromuscular balance throughout the body. Ida Rolf stated that any therapy that brings the body into better alignment while helping to restore mobility and flexibility will have positive effects upon the health of the myofascial supporting system. Maintaining proper posture while improving flexibility and joint mobility is fundamental to the practice of Taijiquan. Muscles are slowly and rhythmically contracted and relaxed as the joints are moved through their pain-free range of motion, thus providing the appropriate stimulus for the Golgi tendon organs.
How can gentle, flowing Taijiquan movements have such profound effects?
So far everything we have discussed helps explain how joint mobilization and soft-tissue techniques can improve health and healing. Since most manual therapy methods are much more forceful than Tai Chi movements, how is it possible that the gentle, flowing movements of Tai Chi can have such profound effects? One possible explanation comes from the work of James Oschman, PhD. In his books (Oschman 2000; Oschman 2003), Oschman makes a very compelling case for what he calls the “living matrix.” He refers to the discovery of the matrix inside the cells, known as the cytoskeleton, being in direct connection with the connective tissue which surrounds and partitions all the other systems of the body. This living matrix gives the body its overall shape, defines the form of each organ, tissue, and cell. The nucleus and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) are part of the living matrix. This forms a continuously connected system throughout the body, which has now been shown to be piezoelectric. In effect, every movement of the body generates bioelectric micro-current signals which are transmitted to every other cell within the body. In fact, according to Oschman, “the living matrix is a continuous molecular system that simultaneously conducts energy and information throughout the body, and that regulates growth, form, and wound healing. Every part of the body is a part of this continuous living matrix. It is a system of systems. Memories are stored within this system, and the totality of its operations gives rise to what we refer to as consciousness. This system is accessed by acupuncture and other complementary medical approaches” (Oschman 2003). This type of communication between systems and tissues has been referred to by Adey as “whispering between cells” (Adey 1993). Oschman goes on to say that Tai Chi and other types of repetitive practices like yoga, Qi Gong, and meditation may gradually lead to more structural integrity within the tissues of the body (Oschman 1997). This living matrix is capable of amplifying an incoming stimulus and directing it to other systems such as the contractile systems of muscles(Oschman 2003).
Health Benefits of Tai chi: What is the evidence?