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The Best Medicine: East Meets West

Western medicine is amazing, one of the wonders of the modern world and how could I fault a medical system that keeps billions of people alive by curing illness, disease and improving quality of life for many who live with chronic conditions? Including members of my close family. There are many things that could strike me down and I would not hesitate to get myself to a doctor or other medical professional.

The modern medical paradigm has been hugely successful in breaking down of a health problem into parts and treating that one aspect of what may be wrong with a person. However, this reductionist – and mostly Western – approach often misses the bigger picture and interconnectedness of what makes a person healthy and vital. 

It is great that awareness is on the rise of alternative and more holistic methods of healing are starting to enjoy a rise to prominence in the Western world. 

Holistic healing

Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) have been on a march to prominence, certainly in the UK, in recent years and they can offer a much more integrated approach to health by looking at crucial lifestyle factors (such as sleep, diet, exercise, levels of stress, relationships, work-life balance) to diagnose and treat illness and disease – or more crucially, to promote a healthy lifestyle which will keep you free from such conditions.

While Ayurveda and yoga are intrinsically linked, the healing aspects of tai chi (and qigong) spring from TCM. 

By looking at the entirety of a person’s life, a more individualised form of healing can take place. Rather than reducing a disease down to impersonal nuts and bolts and applying a one size fits all approach to medication and treatment, one of the huge advantages of medical sciences such as TCM and Ayurveda is that they treat individuals, understanding that what is good for one person may not be good for another. 

Tai chi in Traditional Chinese Medicine

So where does tai chi and qigong fit into all of this? 

Well, qigong and tai chi have been an integral part of healing in China for millennia – the slow fluid movements gently stretch, tone and strengthen the body – having an incredibly positive effect on the whole musculo-skeletal system, as well as improving the health of the cardiovascular system. 

The breath is so crucial to good health (when was the last time a Western doctor prescribed you a breathing exercise!?) – elevating mood and reducing stress levels, slowing down your heart rate and increasing the amount of oxygen absorbed, reducing anxiety, lowering blood pressure, etc… all vital for good overall health and wellbeing. 

Performed correctly, tai chi is an amazing form of physiotherapy – I have seen students recover from all kinds of surgery quicker due to carefully applying tai chi (and related exercises) to their prescribed treatment from a physio. Personally when I was recovering from a reconstructed cruciate ligament I did a huge amount of tai chi and related exercise. Today the knee is in great shape and feels as strong as it ever was! 

Mindfulness in the mainstream

Meditation and mindfulness are amazing buzzwords these days and are quite rightly being seen as ways to keep healthy and heal the body. The mind is such an important tool – quite possibly the most important one – in remaining healthy, or regaining health after illness. I think the Western paradigm is slowly starting to realise this – but it’s not fast enough in my opinion – and meditative practices should be an element of ALL treatment. 

Where qigong and tai chi are great in this respect is that one of the complaints and difficulties many people have with meditation is that they cannot sit still for long enough, or find it hard to concentrate without some physical or external stimulus – well, these amazing arts are literally meditation in motion when applied correctly with the correct mindset. 

Balancing and harmonising energy

What about chi, qi, prana, etc? 

Last but not least is the mysterious force known in TCM as chi (or qi) and in yoga as prana. Disdainfully dismissed as Eastern hocus-pocus by many, Chi is the energy (for want of a better word) that flows through all of life. If you believe that we are more than flesh, blood and bone and that there must be a certain spark that ignites us and keeps us healthy, happy and vital – then that could well be your chi!

Western and more modern concepts and theories such as bioelectricity and quantum physics, are beginning to ‘catch up’ and confirm what has been known for thousands of years – the health of the energy in our body is another crucial factor in our health and wellbeing. Just as having a low immune system would cause a myriad of problems, also having low levels, or blockages, in chi can create disharmony within us and manifest in illness, injury and chronic (or even terminal) conditions. 

Qigong is literally translated as ‘Energy Work’ and tai chi itself is a form of qigong (yes, for all you so called traditionalists out there I KNOW it’s a martial art too but that’s for a different blog!!!) – by practicing these ancient forms of exercise, you will increase the energy levels in and around the body, clearing blockages and greatly improving your health.

So, while advances in Western medicine are amazing and we are incredibly lucky to live in such a time where we have access to such advanced healthcare, ironically in many ways it is just starting to catch up!

The best medicine – where East meets West

However, rather than having a desire to add to the West v East debate – the sensible thing would be to take the middle ground (which in itself is a fundamental concept within tai chi), use tradition Eastern arts such as tai chi and qigong (as well as TCM, yoga, Ayurveda) to remain fit, healthy and vital. When accidents and debilitating illness and injury do take a hold, embrace Western medicine and use medical science to its fullest potential but also do not forget lessons we can learn from the East – move slowly, strengthen gently, breathe deeply, remain calm and mindful, think about the whole body and being. 

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