by Laurie Wertich, Medically Reviewed by Dr. C.H. Weaver M.D. 11/2021
“Everybody says that you should exercise throughout your chemotherapy, and they are absolutely right,” says Maggie Davidson, a nurse and three-year survivor of breast cancer. Maggie followed this advice, logging many hours on an indoor rowing machine throughout her cancer treatment. But as a result of her cancer diagnosis, Maggie also discovered another, gentler form of movement that she credits with getting her through treatment and beyond: tai chi.
What Is Tai Chi?
Tai chi is a form of martial arts that originated in China almost 500 years ago. It differs from other types of martial arts in that the movements do not really exert force. Instead practitioners absorb force softly and then move with that energy to redirect it. Through a series of slow, rhythmic exercises that emphasize balance and coordination, practitioners work to balance the body’s opposing principles, yin and yang.
“This movement is different from other movements because it requires a mind-body interaction,” explains Li-Jun Ma, MD, PhD, a research associate professor at the Vanderbilt Medical Center. Dr. Ma began studying with a tai chi master at the age of seven and now, more than 35 years later, he teaches a therapeutic tai chi class at the Vanderbilt Center for Integrative Health.
Dr. Ma explains that tai chi was originally created for the purpose of self-defense and fitness, but it also cultivates a sense of self-awareness. “The tai chi cultivates your inner energy, called chi-flow,” he says. Though the practice requires focus and concentration, Dr. Ma says, it is also very relaxing: “Some people call [tai chi] a moving meditation.”
Most Western beginners of tai chi learn the standard “24 Form,” which is a series of 24 movements that can be performed in about four to eight minutes. The movements are slow and intentional and involve sweeping arm motions. The practice is graceful and beautiful to watch, and the level of concentration is evident.
Maggie has been working to master the 24 Form for several years. “It allows you to encapsulate your energy,” she says. “Then you have the yin and the yang, which are forces that keep you in balance. The movements are designed to work on both the yin and the yang, depending on which way you are going in the movement—hopefully bringing your energy to yourself and grounding you and allowing you to gain energy and heal those things that are out of balance.”
The Cancer Connection
Because it is so relaxing and gentle, tai chi is an ideal form of movement for cancer patients. Tai chi improves balance, stimulates the immune system, improves endurance, promotes relaxation, and cultivates inner energy.
Dr. Ma explains that tai chi is beneficial for patients managing many chronic diseases, including cancer. Many cancer patients cope with a great deal of stress as a result of their disease and treatment, which the practice may help alleviate. “With the benefit of tai chi to stimulate or regulate your immune system, it can help you battle stress, and that can help you deal with the cancer,” says Dr. Ma.
In addition, tai chi can help cancer patients cope with the side effects of cancer treatment. “When I was on chemo, it really helped me relax,” says Maggie. The practice also helps mitigate some of the long-term side effects of Maggie’s ongoing treatment with aromatase inhibitors: “It helped my joint pain and hot flashes and still does,” she says.
Tai Chi in the Trenches
Cancer and its treatment are challenging for even the toughest customer. Maggie was active and athletic prior to her cancer diagnosis, but she felt overwhelmed by the emotional and physical impact of her treatment. “I was just plain old sad,” she says, describing her feelings surrounding her mastectomy. “I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t anything but sad. If I could have run out of the hospital that morning, I would have,” she said. The physical changes were similarly daunting. “They throw you into menopause, so you gain weight, and you already have a really challenged body image because you have no hair and you’ve been surgically corrected,” she says. “It’s a really tough time.”
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It was during this tough time that Maggie found tai chi. Searching for some form of complementary or alternative therapy that would help her cope with the physical and emotional effects of cancer and its treatment, tai chi was a natural fit. Right away she felt supported, by the camaraderie of the class as well as by the practice itself. “I found that I had a whole different sense of well-being, and it just worked for me,” she says. Now, as she continues to practice tai chi consistently, with her group and on her own, she continues to see the benefit of the exercise as a stress reliever and a relaxation salve.
Tai Chi Is for Everyone
Perhaps the most inviting aspect of tai chi is its gentleness and accessibility to all people, regardless of age and ability level. “Compared with many other physical activities, tai chi is really a quite slow, peaceful, graceful movement,” explains Dr. Ma. He says there are really no contraindications for practicing it—even those sitting in a wheelchair can benefit from moving their arms and practicing their breathing.
Maggie agrees. She is an avid rower and maintains a fairly active lifestyle, but she appreciates the balance that tai chi offers. “It’s gentle, it moves all your joints, and all levels of people can do it—old, young, whatever,” she says. “It’s not aggressive in any way, shape, or form.”
Though it’s easy to get caught up in perfecting the movements, the benefit of tai chi really lies in relaxing into the practice and allowing yourself to simply be. Maggie remarks that though she respects her instructor and wants to make him proud, ultimately she knows that the practice is something she does for herself. “I tell myself, This is for you. This is not for anyone else,” she says.
Where, When, and Why
You may have seen people practicing tai chi’s slow, graceful movements in public parks in the early-morning hours. While most tai chi masters agree that it’s best to practice tai chi outdoors in the grass in the morning or evening when the energy is most invigorating, tai chi can be practiced anywhere at any time.
You can practice alone or with a class, indoors or out. All you need is loose, comfortable clothing, flat shoes, and a desire to be more balanced.
Trying Tai Chi
Great news—if you’re interested in trying tai chi, it’s accessible to all age and ability levels. With a burgeoning interest in tai chi, there are qualified instructors all over the world.
To find an instructor:
Check with your hospital for course offerings. Many cancer centers now offer integrative health programs, including tai chi. Many fitness centers, yoga studios, and martial arts schools offer tai chi classes.
The Internet offers a wealth of tai chi resources.
When screening potential instructors, find out:
How long have they been practicing?
Where did they study their art?
Who was their original teacher?
Many excellent tai chi teachers do not have official credentials. Don’t let this deter you. Simply look for a teacher who has been practicing for many years and who studied under a qualified tai chi master.