How Tai Chi Is Helping Cancer Patients Flow with Peace

Tai Chi Pose

As the sun transcends the horizon, tai chi practitioners around the globe gather in parks, along beach shorelines, and just about anywhere else indoors or outdoors, to flow through a sequence of movements that bring balance and foster inner peace.

Formerly known as t’ai chi ch’uan — which translates into “supreme ultimate fist” — tai chi is an ancient Chinese martial art practiced with “internal power” rather than external power. The slow, circular movements are practiced mindfully and with a focus on the internal experience.

The origins of tai chi were heavily influenced by Daoism philosophy and traditional Chinese medicine. More of a natural philosophy than a religion, in Daoism the forces of nature are an expression of the opposites known as yin and yang. Incorporating this principle into a martial art, tai chi seeks to balance brute force with soft defense.

The gentle approach makes tai chi an ideal physical and mental exercise for cancer patients. The world of cancer treatment is filled with messages that tell patients to fight a war against their cancer, which can make them feel at war with their own bodies. Tai chi is particularly beneficial for anyone affected by cancer because it teaches people to respond peacefully and mindfully to forces out of their control.

“In the Daoist view opposing forces, yin and yang act upon the world, and tai chi brings them into harmony. Examples of yin and yang include light and dark, male and female, up and down, day and night, hot and cold. The human body is ruled by this interplay, and movements contain both yin and yang elements,” explains tai chi master Arthur Rosenfeld, author of the new book, “Tai Chi — The Perfect Exercise: Finding Health, Happiness, Balance, and Strength.”

Science is proving what practitioners have known for centuries: The benefits of tai chi on the body and mind are multifaceted and available to people of all ages. Studies show that the gentle martial art can improve sleep and quality of life, as well as boost immunity and bone mineral density.

Balance as Medicine

The roots of tai chi are grounded in 12th century China, where the practice initially spread slowly from village to village for many years. During China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, tai chi was banned, forcing people to practice in secret. The teachings, though hidden from view, were preserved, and now China recommends tai chi to its citizens as an exercise to boost mental and physical health.

Purportedly created by a Daoist, tai chi was designed as a gentle form of defense to conserve a practitioner’s energy while peacefully deferring blows from an opponent. Modern forms of tai chi embody a flowing, graceful movement that aims to balance a person’s energy, called chi or qi.

Ying Yang

Today the martial art is considered a common form of mind-body medicine and is enjoyed by millions of people throughout the word. In 2007, around 2 million Americans had practiced tai chi within the previous year.

Other practices influenced by Chinese medicine, such as acupuncture and qigong, also seek to balance chi energy. The energy concept is also seen in Ayurvedic medicine, a system developed in India that refers to chi energy as “prana.” The power of subtle energy on overall health is a unifying principle among most forms of complementary and alternative medicine.

The Proof is in the Practice

Before modern medicine started creating pills and machines to treat illness, natural therapies brought the sick back to whole health. The principles live on today through holistic medicine, which aims to bring the entire body into a state of balanced health.

Even though pharmaceuticals tend to receive the bulk of funds available for medical research, a surprising amount of studies were conducted on tai chi within the past 20 years. These studies found that tai chi:

  • Can reduce falls and improve sleep in the elderly.
  • Bolsters quality of life (QOL) and increases exercise tolerance in heart failure patients.
  • Strengthens physical functioning among people with rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Improves blood pressure and cholesterol levels in people with hypertension.
  • Increases bone mineral density.
  • Reduces symptoms in fibromyalgia patients and improves their QOL.
  • Improves balance and functional capacity in Parkinson’s disease patients while reducing their risk of falls.

In a study on breast cancer survivors, tai chi improved shoulder muscle strength, which could also prove helpful for patients with lung cancer and mesothelioma because shoulder muscles support the thoracic organs most affected by these cancers.

One landmark study on lung cancer survivors found that tai chi has the potential to increase human immunity against tumor formation. The study included a group who practiced tai chi for 16 weeks and a control group who did not. The control group saw an unfavorable reduction in T-cells (important cells that support the immune system) and an increase in cortisol (a stress-related hormone). The survivors who practiced tai chi for 16 weeks showed no reduction in T-cell count and no increase in cortisol levels. Based on these results, researchers reported that tai chi may help to balance cellular immunity and thus increase immunity against cancer.

An Ancient Fix for a Modern World

“In this high-tech world that’s all about speed, greed and instant gratification, tai chi is the antidote to bring us back to balanced health,” Rosenfeld said.

There is temptation everywhere to go faster, accomplish more in less time, or opt for a quick fix — which all too often serve as a Band-Aid or as a distraction from a deeper issue.

Take relaxation, for example. Anyone facing illness undoubtedly benefits from relaxation, but that state of peace seems to elude many Americans. In 2010, more than 20 percent of adults in the United States took drugs for conditions like anxiety and depression. With all the societal pressure to keep up with the fast-paced American lifestyle, it’s no wonder that so many choose to take a pill rather than maintain a practice to promote natural relaxation.

Talk to anyone who’s tried both paths, and they’ll offer testament to the difference. Natural relaxation that is achieved from within feels profoundly different than an artificially produced state of relaxation. The former pervades and lasts, and the latter offers temporary relief.

In a world filled with impermanence and constant change, such artificial, temporary relaxation is a cruel tease that can beget more frustration. But there are real, lasting solutions to this widespread vexation. Mind-body practices like tai chi are teaching the tools we all need to regain our natural state of balance and peace.

Have you tried tai chi yet? Or have you tried any other complementary or alternative therapies? Let us know on Facebook.

  1. Associated Press. (2011, Nov. 16). 1 in 5 of U.S. adults on behavioral meds. USA Today.
  2. Fong, S.S., Ng, S.S., Luk, W.S., Chung, J.W., Chung, L.M., Tsang, W.W., & Chow, L.P. (2013). Shoulder mobility, muscular strength, and quality of life in breast cancer survivors with and without tai chi qigong training. Evidenced Based Complementary Alternative Medicine, 2013(2013). doi: 10.1155/2013/787169
  3. Internicola, D. (2013, Jun. 17). Tai chi: getting there more slowly, but gracefully and intact. Reuters.
  4. NIH. (2010). Tai Chi: An Introduction. National Institutes of Health.
  5. Rosenfeld, A. (2008, Dec. 3). Tai chi for the new year. Huffington Post.
  6. Stan, D.L., Collins, N.M., Olsen, M.M., Croghan, I., & Pruthi, S. (2012). The evolution of mindfulness-based physical interventions in breast cancer survivors. Evidenced Based Complementary Alternative Medicine, 2012(2012). doi:10.1155/2012/758641
  7. Wang, R. , Liu, J., Chen, P., & Yu, D. (2013). Regular tai chi exercise decreases the percentage of type 2 cytokine-producing cells in postsurgical non-small cell lung cancer survivors. Cancer Nursing, 36(4), E27-34. doi: 10.1097/NCC.0b013e318268f7d5

Joining the team in February 2008 as a writer and editor, Michelle Whitmer has translated medical jargon into patient-friendly information at for more than eight years. Michelle is a registered yoga teacher, a member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine, and was quoted by The New York Times on the risks of asbestos exposure. If you have a story idea for Michelle, please email her at

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