Harvard on Tai Chi!

The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi

The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi is written by Peter M. Wayne, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and research director at its Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, with the assistance of health and medical author Mark L. Fuerst. The purpose of the book is to examine the western medical literature on tai chi and provide do-it-yourself instructions for beginner-level independent practice.

Part One’s brief history of tai chi sticks roughly to the “harmonious narrative” of a religious origin for the practice, but hides more frank comments aligned with our own lineage’s version of the history in the end notes. This strikes me as a tactful approach to a politically delicate issue. Describing tai chi's introduction to the 60's American counterculture allows Wayne to talk about his personal experience learning Yang Small Frame from one of Chen Man Ching's students.

While the book is written in accessible language for a lay audience, some of Part One appears to be aimed at medical professionals who want to conduct medical studies on tai chi. From a lay point of view the authors’ eight-factor model of tai chi’s benefits struck me as overly complicated. However, I think the purpose of the model is to steer readers away from the single-factor “active ingredient” model that is western medicine’s comfort zone. The authors make a persuasive counter-argument that tai chi’s social elements – including the support provided by club membership – are as important as the physical exercise.

Wayne explains that the hard part of conducting a medical study on tai chi is that it takes too long to teach participants the traditional forms. The now-standard solution is to invent a short, simple medical qigong to teach participants instead. Chapter Three gives an example of a basic twelve-week Yang-based curriculum, and brief illness-specific qigongs can be found scattered through Part Two.

Part Two devotes each chapter to a specific health concern such as pain management or fall prevention. The authors describe the physical processes involved and what the research says about tai chi's effects. The inclusion of patient testimonials and the lack of negative findings or contraindications gave me the impression that the authors want to “make a case” for tai chi rather than dispassionately look at pros and cons. This theme is picked up again in the afterword, which argues that the American health-care system is dysfunctional and promotes tai chi as part of a renewed focus on preemptive health-maintenance.

Part Three is the ‘miscellaneous’ section, covering diverse topics such as the psychology of pushing hands, how to find a good tai chi club, and tai chi’s application to the performing arts. Different parts of this section will probably be of interest to different readers, and it lends itself to skipping around rather than reading straight through.

Overall, Wayne and Fuerst succeed in making the case that there is empirical evidence that tai chi is good for your health, and in giving sufficiently detailed instructions that a reader can test-drive the practice. I would recommend it to people who are using tai chi as part of a personal treatment regimen and want to better understand what results they can expect, or to people who are trying to build a supporting argument in favour of offering tai chi classes for health.

Megan Hine has been a member of Cold Mountain Internal Arts since 2013, focusing on Yang style, and is responsible for the Cold Mountain archive and video library.

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