The Science Behind Tai Chi, Qigong and Meridians

Chinese practitioners have long held that Tai Chi and Qigong strengthen our Chi (vital force or energy). In a moment, we will review how this Chinese wisdom is supported by medical science. Let's begin by looking at how Tai Chi and Qigong impact our general health and wellbeing.

Photo by Elle Hughes

Those of us who regularly practice these and similar systems (like yoga) often feel an improvement in our mood, energy, balance and flexibility. In fact, the medical community has increasingly begun to recommend Tai Chi and Qigong for patients looking for help with hypertension, fall prevention, cognitive performance, osteoarthritis, depression, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pain, balance, and muscle strength. Many studies indicate that Tai Chi and Qigong help in these areas.

Now let’s talk about a slightly less straightforward concept: Chi.

Teachers of Tai Chi and Qigong often describe how the movements influence the flow of Chi through our bodies. While you may think this sounds a little “woo woo” or unscientific, let’s look at Chi from the perspective of science.

Science accepts the fact that our bodies are electromagnetic. When you get an MRI, the machine uses a magnetic field to evaluate the electromagnetic properties of the tissues in your body. When things go wrong - for example, when cancer cells begin to develop - western medicine can use electromagnetic energy patterns in our bodies to find the illness. Generally speaking, the western medical approach to the body’s energy is to use it to discover illness – and then attempt to fix it.

Practitioners in China, India, Japan and Thailand (among others) take a different approach. For centuries, they have studied the vital life force of the body – its electromagnetic energy, or Chi. Their medical system maps the body’s network of energy pathways (known as “meridians” in China and Japan, and “nadis” in India). Acupuncture, acupressure, yoga, Tai Chi and Qigong all stimulate the body’s energy meridians with the goal of maintaining optimal health. This system is less about fixing illness and more about nurturing wellness.

Medical researchers in China and Korea have published documented how meridian-like systems operate in the body, but only recently has a published study caused western medicine to take notice. In March 2018, a team of scientists used a new technology to study living human tissue. They discovered “fluid-filled spaces” in connective tissues throughout the body. One of the researchers describes this connective tissue in an interview with Live Science as an “open, fluid-filled highway” with direct links to the lymphatic system, among others. While western medical science knew there was fluid between individual cells, the concept of a connected network is new.

This study, with its potential link between eastern and western medicine is very exciting to many. It may help explain how illness – as well as healing – spreads through the body. For practitioners of Tai Chi, Qigong, and other systems based on eastern medicine, it adds depth to our experience and understanding.