8 minute read

Trained in Evolutionary Biology, Peter Wayne, Ph.D., has spent the last 12 years in medical research and more than 35 years studying and teaching Tai Chi. He now serves as Research Director for the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine jointly based at the Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where a primary focus of his research is studying the clinical and physiological impacts of Tai Chi on health.

I spoke to Peter about the unique opportunities and challenges of being both a Tai Chi teacher and a researcher and how these two different roles inform each other. He is currently working on a book about the same topic.

Tell me a little about your book…

This book summarizes what the medical research community knows about the clinical health benefits of Tai Chiâ€"for example, Tai Chi’s impact on heart disease, balance, psychological well being, and overall quality of life. But it also tries to go a little further, exploring the biological mechanisms that may underlie why Tai Chi is effective for so many conditions. To do this, I’ve organized the book around what I call “the eight active ingredients of Tai Chi.” The grouping of these ingredients reflect both what I’ve learned is essential in Tai Chi from my many Tai Chi and qigong teachers, and also what I’ve learned from our Tai Chi research.

The concept of isolating active ingredients is common in other medical research. But does it really make sense to think of Tai Chi within this framework?

Great question…..and I think absolutely so. Part of why I chose this language is to bend the ear of my medical colleaguesâ€"to try to communicate in their language. Even if we see positive clinical effects in Tai Chi trials, without plausible mechanismsâ€"â€" that is, being able to attribute clinical health effects to specific ‘active ingredients’, research results often have little traction in the medical community. Mechanisms are part of what we call the totality of evidence.

Additionally, by using this language, we’ve been able to emphasize Tai Chi’s richnessâ€"that it includes not just one active ingredientâ€"but manyâ€"including those related to neuromuscular control, breathing, cognitive processes, etc. This may explain why it’s helpful for so diverse a set of health issues.

Finally, as a teacher, thinking in terms of active ingredients has helped me shape a curriculum that tries to maximize the ‘dosage’ of essential tai chi principles in as short a period of time as is possible. This is key for teaching in clinical trials which are often constrained in length due to funding limitations; but also relevant to community-based classes where we want people to get a real taste of deep Tai Chi as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Living in the research world and the Tai Chi world at the same time allows Peter to apply lessons from one to the other. Here he explains how his scientific education influences the way he understands teaching Tai Chi:

My formal academic training was in evolutionary biology and ecological modeling, and my research for the first 15 years was with plants. So shifting to medical research 12 years ago was a big change for me. Consequently, I bring a somewhat unique perspective to the teams of medical researchers I work with. My training to think ecologically, in terms of systems, is more like Chinese Medicine in that it focuses on ecological interactions within the bodyâ€"how systems interact to create a complex whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In contrast, Western medicine has traditionally emphasized reductionist thinking, focusing on smaller and smaller parts, often at the cost of not seeing the whole person. Interestingly, systems biology is being increasingly appreciated in medicine, and Tai Chi research fits beautifully into this more ecological framework of health.

Can you give an example?

Sure…,breathing is a really important element in our tai chi and qigong training. But there's no way you can substantially change your breathing without changing your posture and how you hold your structure. And your breathing deeply affects you nervous and cardiovascular system, and many aspects of your mood; it can be a great tool for focusing the ‘monkey mind’ and becoming more sensitive to the inner landscape of our body. And of course changes in all these processes feedback on how we move and socially respond and interact with others. All these processes are ecologically intertwined with each other.

But I also still think it's useful to unpack the interconnected componentsâ€"for example to teach breathing exercises on their own and to study the physiological impacts of breathing exercises, in isolation of the larger package of Tai Chi. As a teacher, focusing on individual components helps brings awareness to finer scale processes, and it helps make a clearer teaching intention. Also talking about the physiology of breathing in classes helps some students appreciate the work, and for the students, there can be a lot of power in knowing. Most of us like to be told why we are doing a given practice in a given way. It really helps if students are informed. It creates buy in. I really love building bridges between traditional practices and modern science for this reason.

Finally, what’s it like for you teaching in a clinical trial compared to your community-based classes?

In clinical trials, we are asking individuals to volunteer their time as a study participant so we can learn more about the health effects of Tai Chi. Often, these individuals have serious health conditions, and may not have chosen Tai Chi, or even heard of it, were it not for their doctor telling them about the trial. So many come to class not because they especially want to do tai chi, but because it’s a ‘new therapy’ they are hopeful it might improve their health. So there is sometimes a bit more time devoted to easing them into the work and making them feel comfortable.

But I think in your classes, in my classes, everyday someone walks in, and it's like an energetic push-hands. How do you meet that person exactly where they are and make them feel comfortable. And sometimes it has to be with a joke, sometimes it has to be with empathic solemnness, sometimes it's with a little distanceâ€"some do not initially care for intimacy. And you just have to feel that out. The real challenge, of course, is when you try to feel it out with 30 different people at the same time.

I really enjoying the challenge of connecting with diverse populations, and find humor and science help.

One of my favorite moments in teaching new Tai Chi students, both in clinical trials and community-based classes, is introducing them to a qigong warm-up exercise called “Washing yourself with qi from nature.” This very simple exercise, done either standing or seated, is designed to gather in healing, rejuvenating, peaceful energy from nature and guide this energy through every cell of the body, starting at the crown of the head and down through the chest, shoulders, spine, all the internal organs, through the legs and feet. I ask participantsâ€"not uncommonly older housewives and retired blue collar workers with little or no exposure to New Age practices --to imagine doing this while standing on a mountaintop, a beach, or wherever they feel they would be surrounded by nourishing energy. As they do the movement, I invite them to trust the energy to permeate and revitalize every cell of their body, while at the same time, tired sick energy is filter out and washed out through the soles of their feet into the earth.

Then I’ll abruptly stop, smile, and acknowledge with them how odd or weird this all sounds. They typically agree and we all laugh together. I’ll then share with them some of the research my colleagues and I have done related to the placebo effect, that sheds light on the exercise we are learning, and more generally supports the Tai Chi principle that what you think and believe impacts your physiology and how you feel. Typically, I draw on the well-documented placebo effect in asthma patients. Briefly, asthma patients in placebo studies were recruited to participate under the guise of evaluating new asthma drugs. Wearing an air-tight breathing mask, first they were told they would be challenged with an airborne insult, for example, ragweed, but actually they were simply given saline sprayed into the air they inhaled. Just the suggestion of ragweed induced physiologically measurable asthmatic attacks in the majority of participants. Following this insult, they were then told they were being given a new asthma “rescue” medication, which again was saline, and most of those who had had the asthma attacks quickly recovered. A huge body of research now shows that this so-called placebo effect -- that is, that placebos can have a real therapeutic effect -- is true for nearly all medical interventions, including sugar pills, mock injections, even surgery, and for nearly all medical conditions.

After this brief interlude, I return back to “washing yourself with qi from heavens” and jokingly say “so as we wash with qi from heavens, you can go to your special place and imagine breathing in and bathing every cell in your body with healing energy, or you can breath in ragweed or other toxic substances. It’s your choice!”

Learn more about Peter's school here at Tree of Life Tai Chi.