Research examining the psychological and physiological benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi is growing rapidly. The many practices described as Qigong or Tai Chi have similar theoretical roots, proposed mechanisms of action and expected benefits.
A substantial body of published research has examined the health benefits of Tai Chi (also called Taiji) a traditional Chinese wellness practice. In addition, a strong body of research is also emerging for Qigong, an even more ancient traditional Chinese wellness practise that has similar characteristics to Tai Chi. Qigong and Tai Chi have been proposed, along with Yoga and Pranayama from India, to constitute a unique category or type of exercise referred to currently as a meditative movement. These two forms of meditative movement, Qigong and Tai Chi, are close relatives having shared theoretical roots, common operational components, and similar links to the wellness and health-promoting aspects of traditional Chinese medicine. They are nearly identical in practical application in the health enhancement context and share much overlap in what traditional Chinese medicine describes as the “three regulations”: body focus (posture and movement), breath focus, and mind focus (meditative components).
Previously published reviews have reported on specific outcomes of either Tai Chi or Qigong, mostly addressing only one of these practices, and rarely taking into account the similarity of the two forms and their similar outcomes. These reviews have covered a wide variety of outcomes, with many focused on specific diseases or symptoms including: hypertension; cardiovascular disease; cancer; arthritic disease; stroke rehabilitation; aerobic capacity; falls and balance; bone mineral density; and shingles-related immunity, with varying degrees of support noted for outcomes in response to Qigong or Tai Chi.
Other reviews have addressed a broad spectrum of outcomes to demonstrate how Qigong or Tai Chi have demonstrated improvements for participants with a variety of chronic health problems or with vulnerable older adults. While many of these reviews have utilized selection criteria which restrict their focus to rigorous empirical studies, others have used less stringent criteria. The purpose of this review is to evaluate the current evidence for a broad range of health benefits for both Qigong and Tai Chi using only randomized controlled trials (RCTs), and to evaluate the potential of treating these two forms of meditative movement as equivalent forms. A complete description of Qigong and Tai Chi is presented and the equivalence of their theoretical roots and their common elements of practice are established. Then, the body of evidence for outcomes in response to Qigong and Tai Chi is reviewed to examine the range of health benefits. Finally, to more critically evaluate similarities across studies of the two practices we discuss the potential of treating them as equivalent interventions in research and the interpretation of results across studies.
Overview of Qigong and Tai Chi
Qigong is, definitively, more ancient in origin than Tai Chi and it is the over-arching, more original discipline incorporating widely diverse practices designed to cultivate functional integrity and the enhancement of the life essence that the Chinese call Qi. Both Qigong and Tai Chi sessions incorporate a wide range of physical movements, including slow, meditative, flowing, dance-like motions. In addition, they both can include sitting or standing meditation postures as well as either gentle or vigorous body shaking. Most importantly, both incorporate the purposeful regulation of both breath and mind coordinated with the regulation of the body. Qigong and Tai Chi are both based on theoretical principles that are inherent to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). In the ancient teachings of health-oriented Qigong and Tai Chi, the instructions for attaining the state of enhanced Qi capacity and function point to the purposeful coordination of body, breath and mind (paraphrased here): “Mind the body and the breath, and then clear the mind to distil the Heavenly elixir within.” This combination of self-awareness with self-correction of the posture and movement of the body, the flow of breath, and stilling of the mind, are thought to comprise a state which activates the natural self-regulatory (self-healing) capacity, stimulating the balanced release of endogenous neurohormones and a wide array of natural health recovery mechanisms which are evoked by the intentful integration of body and mind.
Despite variations among the myriad forms, we assert that health-oriented Tai Chi and Qigong emphasize the same principles and practice elements. Given these similar foundations and the fashion in which Tai Chi has typically been modified for implementation in clinical research, we suggest that the research literature for these two forms of meditative movement should be considered as one body of evidence.
Qigong translates from Chinese to mean, roughly, to cultivate or enhance the inherent functional (energetic) essence of the human being. It is considered to be the contemporary offspring of some of the most ancient (before recorded history) healing and medical practices of Asia. Earliest forms of Qigong make up one of the historic roots of contemporary Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory and practice. Many branches of Qigong have a health and medical focus and have been refined for well over 5000 years. Qigong purportedly allows individuals to cultivate the natural force or energy (“Qi”) in TCM that is associated with physiological and psychological functionality. Qi is the conceptual foundation of TCM in acupuncture, herbal medicine and Chinese physical therapy. It is considered to be a ubiquitous resource of nature that sustains human well-being and assists in healing disease as well as (according to TCM theory) having a fundamental influence on all life and even the orderly function of celestial mechanics and the laws of physics. Qigong exercises consist of a series of orchestrated practices including body posture/movement, breath practice, and meditation, all designed to enhance Qi function (that is, drawing upon natural forces to optimize and balance energy within) through the attainment of deeply focused and relaxed states. From the perspective of Western thought and science, Qigong practices activate naturally occurring physiological and psychological mechanisms of self-repair and health recovery.
Tai Chi translates to mean, “Grand Ultimate”, and in the Chinese culture, it represents an expansive philosophical and theoretical notion which describes the natural world (i.e., the universe) in the spontaneous state of dynamic balance between mutually interactive phenomena including the balance of light and dark, movement and stillness, waves and particles. Tai Chi, the exercise, is named after this concept and was originally developed both as a martial art (Tai Chi Chuan or taijiquan) and as a form of meditative movement. The practice of Tai Chi as meditative movement is expected to elicit functional balance internally for healing, stress neutralization, longevity, and personal tranquillity. This form of Tai Chi is the focus of this review.
For numerous, complex sociological and political reasons, Tai Chi has become one of the best-known forms of exercise or practice for refining Qi and is purported to enhance physiological and psychological function. The one factor that appears to differentiate Tai Chi from Qigong is that traditional Tai Chi is typically performed as a highly choreographed, lengthy, and complex series of movements, while health enhancement Qigong is typically a simpler, easy to learn, more repetitive practice. However, even the longer forms of Tai Chi incorporate many movements that are similar to Qigong exercises. Usually, the more complex Tai Chi routines include Qigong exercises as a warm-up, and emphasize the same basic principles for practice, that is, the three regulations of body focus, breath focus and mind focus. Therefore, Qigong and Tai Chi, in the health promotion and wellness context, are operationally equivalent.
TAI CHI & QIGONG
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