Written By: Brian Trzaskos PT LMT CSCS CMP MI-C
How often have you stopped to consider the question, “What exactly is medicine?”
It may seem obvious to us steeped in Western culture that medicine is something you give to someone who is sick. Medicine is most often thought to be delivered through traditional pharmacology, although herbal formulas found at natural food centers might also be recognized as medicine. How about changing a diet when someone is sick? Can food then be considered medicine? And if so, is medicine something that we must take into the body from the outside? From an allopathic, western perspective these questions can suddenly become confusing, especially when we see medicine only as something we give someone when they are sick.
Anthropologically speaking, when it comes to “medicine” indigenous cultures around the world including Native American, Ayurvedic, and Traditional Chinese Medicine not surprisingly take a more holistic view. Have you ever heard Native American stories about certain people having “BIG” medicine? This probably doesn’t mean that they owned a drug company, but rather that the person was someone who exuded something intangible, yet palpably powerful. Common among ancient cultures the idea of medicine evolves through four levels; illness, wellness, longevity, and immortality. Let’s look closer at each of these.
Similar to the views in Western culture, indigenous peoples recognized that medicine was important in the treatment of people who developed illnesses. While in contemporary Western medical care, the use of medicine has largely been limited to pharmacology and surgical procedures, ancient cultures additionally recognized the value of self-care practices including breathwork, self-massage, gentle movement, and meditation in addition to using herbs and acupuncture. This returns us to the question, “What exactly is medicine and is it something that a person must take in from the outside?” If we were to broaden our view of medicine to, “something that creates a shift towards more coherent physiologic and psychological function”, which arguably is the intent of modern medical care then it becomes more obvious that Tai Chi and Qigong practices would qualify as a type of medicine.
There is copious research over the past decade that practicing Tai Chi and Qigong regularly creates shifts in neurotransmitter, brain, and even DNA function such that chronic inflammatory markers are decreased and positive changes in neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and beta-endorphin are enhanced. In short, practicing Tai Chi IS medicine and it’s the distinguishing value of the four elements of self-care (self-massage, mindful movement, breathwork, and meditation) that allows ancient practices like Tai Chi and Qigong to extend the “medicine” beyond simply addressing a person who is ill.
In contemporary life, once a person has recovered from illness sometimes a newfound desire for sustained “wellness” emerges. In my own past personal experience of dealing with debilitating back pain and stress-related disorders and never wanting to experience those things again, it is somewhat perplexing to me that in an effort to not be sick again, someone would not keep doing what helped get them well. Built into the fabric of ancient medicine is the idea that “an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure” such that in ancient Traditional Chinese Medicine practice the doctor was only paid when the patient was well. When it comes to maintaining wellness and preventing disease, research also supports Tai Chi in relieving pain, strengthening cardiovascular health, improving mental wellness, preventing falls, boosting the immune system, improving cognitive function, protecting against fractures, reducing fatigue, and encouraging healthy sleep.
What about the medicine of longevity? When I travel and speak to people about Tai Chi practices, at some point someone will mention that they were inspired to learn more after watching older people doing a graceful Tai Chi form in the park. While some Tai Chi viewers come to believe that Tai Chi is just for “old” people, what I have experienced is that those old people are very often much older than you think they are because they move better than many people half their age! From an indigenous perspective, one of the great benefits of living longer is not just for personal health but in addition the massive benefit it affords society through the collection and sharing of lived experience and wisdom. In most native cultures children were raised by their wiser and often more patient grandparents while young parents shouldered the bulk of the physical labor. The medicine of Tai Chi practice has been shown to compound upon itself beyond the beneficial changes we have discussed above to be linked to extending life span.
Another exciting finding is the effect of regular Tai Chi practice on telomerase activity. At the end of every DNA strand is a sort of “cap”, known as a telomere, which is often compared to the plastic cap on the end of a shoelace. Every time a cell reproduces, the DNA strand must unravel and a small piece of the telomere cap is sacrificed in the process, and when the telomere is all gone the cell can no longer reproduce itself. Basically, when the telomere is all used up the cell dies. Telomerase is the enzyme that rebuilds telomeres, such that DNA strands exposed to optimal levels of telomerase can replicate themselves many more times. In essence, the optimal levels of telomerase stimulated by regular Tai Chi practice allow cells to replicate more times, potentially equaling longer cellular life spans.
And finally, we arrive at the Big Medicine of “immortality”. Yes, I know, I can feel the eyes rolling from here. In Traditional Chinese culture, “immortality” is not a state in which a person lives forever in their current body or even reincarnated but rather an experience in which a person comes into a relationship with an aspect of themselves that is “irrevocably well, does not get sick, and cannot die.” When I first heard this beautiful phrase years ago it would have felt completely foreign if not for an experience I had very early in my PT career.
In my first year out of school, I was doing my acute inpatient rotation at Buffalo General Hospital and received orders to see a patient on the hospice floor. I was still actively processing my own grandmother’s difficult death a few years earlier and apprehensively knocked on the door, fearful that I may not be able to manage myself emotionally. Upon entering the room, I found a middle-aged woman with a yellow headscarf, sitting at the edge of the bed, seemingly glowing and at great peace. She smiled at me kindly and welcomed me in as if she had been expecting me for some time. She asked my name and we talked about my life. Come to think of it, I don’t recall doing any physical therapy with her at all. What I do remember is how clear, peaceful, and strangely hopeful I felt in her presence. I would love to tell you that she cultivated that sense of grace by practicing Tai Chi, but I honestly don’t know. When I returned to see her the next day, her room was empty.
While our Western medicine world values of objective and empirical evidence struggle with and often marginalize concepts of spirituality, indigenous cultures make no distinction between them; it is all part of the great whole. The very symbol of Tai Chi translates into, “supreme ultimate” harmony or balance. Philosophically speaking, Tai Chi is much less an exercise and more so a way to explain and practically live in a fully connected universe. The practice of Tai Chi is often viewed as a symbolic representation of the harmony inherent to the universal process, which of course includes the life cycles of all things, and by mindfully practicing this symbolic dance of opposites we come into a deeper state of acceptance with the way that things are; sustained inner peace being the result.
Register for my upcoming Live Webinar on August 2, 2023, Evidence-Based Rehabilitation Using Tai Chi. This course will give you the opportunity to experience the practices and principles of Tai Chi as they apply to balance and functional rehabilitation.
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Gong-xiang Duan, Ke Wang, Yin-hua Su, Shuang-yang Tang, Hong-li Jia, Xue-mei Chen, Hong-hui Xie, Effects of Tai Chi on telomerase activity and gerotranscendence in middle aged and elderly adults in Chinese society, International Journal of Nursing Sciences, Volume 3, Issue 3, 2016, Pages 235-241, ISSN 2352-0132, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijnss.2016.07.005.
Yao Y, Ge L, Yu Q, Du X, Zhang X, Taylor-Piliae R, Wei GX. The Effect of Tai Chi Chuan on Emotional Health: Potential Mechanisms and Prefrontal Cortex Hypothesis. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2021 Apr 30;2021:5549006. doi: 10.1155/2021/5549006. PMID: 34007290; PMCID: PMC8110391.
Lin B, Jin Q, Liu C, Zhao W, Ji R. Effect and mechanism of tai chi on blood pressure of patients with essential hypertension: a randomized controlled study. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2022 Sep;62(9):1272-1277. doi: 10.23736/S0022-4707.21.13394-8. Epub 2021 Dec 9. PMID: 34881557.
You T, Ogawa EF, Thapa S, Cai Y, Yeh GY, Wayne PM, Shi L, Leveille SG. Effects of Tai Chi on beta endorphin and inflammatory markers in older adults with chronic pain: an exploratory study. Aging Clin Exp Res. 2020 Jul;32(7):1389-1392. doi: 10.1007/s40520-019-01316-1. Epub 2019 Aug 20. PMID: 31432432; PMCID: PMC7031034.
Na Wang and others, Associations of Tai Chi, Walking, and Jogging With Mortality in Chinese Men, American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 178, Issue 5, 1 September 2013, Pages 791–796, https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwt050
Greeson JM, Webber DM, Smoski MJ, Brantley JG, Ekblad AG, Suarez EC, Wolever RQ. Changes in spirituality partly explain health-related quality of life outcomes after Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. J Behav Med. 2011 Dec;34(6):508-18. doi: 10.1007/s10865-011-9332-x. Epub 2011 Mar 1. PMID: 21360283; PMCID: PMC3151546.