Tai Chi

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What is tai chi?

Tai chi is an exercise that combines slow, graceful movements with meditation and breathing techniques. Because the body is constantly in motion, tai chi is sometimes called "moving meditation." Although tai chi has developed into an exercise for health purposes, it originated as a martial art in 12th-century China. Many practitioners believe that there is a vital energy flowing throughout the body, called qi (pronounced "chee") and that tai chi helps prevent the flow of qi from being blocked.

Research in breast cancer patients has shown that tai chi may help to increase:

  • strength
  • balance
  • flexibility
  • heart and lung function
  • feelings of well-being

What to expect in a typical tai chi session

During a tai chi session, your instructor will help you learn and practice a series of relaxed yet deliberate movements. Here's what you can expect:

  • Movements: You'll learn a series of tai chi movements, which are practiced in pairs of opposites: a twist to the right is followed by a twist to the left. A series of movements is called a "form," or routine. You and your instructor should decide what movements and forms are appropriate for you.
  • Forms: A form can include between 20 and 100 movements, which may take up to 20 minutes to perform.
  • Breathing: As you perform the movements, you'll be asked to pay attention to your breathing, which originates in the diaphragm.
  • Meditative concentration: At the same time, you will focus a relaxed concentration, called "meditative concentration," on the area just below the navel. It is believed that qi begins below the navel and travels through the body.

Once you've practiced a form on a regular basis with a teacher, you can begin practicing at home.

Tai chi practitioner requirements

In the United States, the practice of tai chi is not regulated by state or federal government. Teacher training program requirements can vary from 50 to 1000 hours depending on the school, and licensing is not required. However, many hospitals and cancer centers offer tai chi classes. Ask your doctor or nurse for recommendations.

When you've found a potential instructor, ask about his or her experience:

  • Where did you receive your training?
  • How many hours of training have you had?
  • Have you ever worked with breast cancer patients? For how long?

For more information about finding a qualified complementary medicine practitioner, see our Finding a Complementary Medicine Practitioner section.

Research on tai chi in women with breast cancer

In a few small studies, tai chi was shown to improve heart and lung function, strength, flexibility, self-esteem, and quality of life in women who had had breast cancer.

A 2004 study at the Wilmot Cancer Center in Rochester, NY, assigned 21 women who had been treated for breast cancer to either 12 weeks of tai chi or 12 weeks of participation in a psychosocial support group, both for 1 hour, 3 times a week. The women who practiced tai chi showed significant improvements in self-esteem and quality of life when compared with the women in the psychosocial support group. According to researchers, tai chi may have more of a positive impact on self-esteem than the psychosocial support group because:

  • The physical aspects of self-esteem might have more meaning for breast cancer survivors than for other groups of people.
  • Since tai chi is a more active practice than participation in a support group, tai chi might help create a sense of being in control.

In a more recent Wilmot Cancer Center study published in 2006, 21 women who had been treated for breast cancer were randomly assigned either to practice tai chi or to participate in a psychosocial support group, both for 1 hour, 3 times a week for 12 weeks. This time, researchers studied the women's heart and lung function, muscular strength, and flexibility. While the women in the psychosocial support group showed improved flexibility, the women in the tai chi group showed improvements in all 3 categories, as well as a slight reduction in percentage of body fat.

Important things to consider before trying tai chi

Tai chi is a low-impact exercise and is considered to be relatively safe. However, as with any practice, there are precautions you should take if you've had breast cancer. If you're considering tai chi, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Tell your doctor. Before starting tai chi, tell your doctor. It's particularly important to talk to your doctor if you've recently had surgery, if you haven't exercised in a while, or if you have osteoporosis or joint problems.
  • Start slow. Gradually build up your tai chi experience. Learn how to position your body properly, and take your time. Overdoing it during practice can result in muscle strains or sprains.
  • Know when not to practice. Don't practice tai chi immediately after a meal, if you have any type of infection, or if you're tired.
  • Know your limits. If you're unable to stand for long periods of time, modified versions of tai chi can be done in a chair or bed. Talk to your instructor about other ways you can do tai chi.

Back to Types of Complementary Techniques

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