BOOK REVIEW: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi by Peter M. Wayne & Mark Fuerst

The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi: 12 Weeks to a Healthy Body, Strong Heart, and Sharp MindThe Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi: 12 Weeks to a Healthy Body, Strong Heart, and Sharp Mind by Peter Wayne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book provides an overview (and a laymen-friendly literature review) of the scientific findings about tai chi, and it helps a beginner get started in his / her own practice. (Tai chi, short for tai chi chuan, is a Chinese martial art that is called an internal–or soft–style.)

The authors achieve an impressive tightrope act. And they manage to do it in a way that reads sincerely, while at the same time providing useful information for all readers. Often books on the science of Eastern health-enhancing activities (e.g. tai chi, chi gong, or yoga)–even if they are positive on the results of such activities—take digs at people’s beliefs about ideas like chi, prana, meridians, or chakra as the authors attempt to distance themselves from such beliefs. On the other hand, books that cater to the spiritually inclined—even when they are couched in scientific terms—may resort to third-hand anecdotes about the supernatural powers of some ancient master or report methodological train wrecks that support their views alongside sound studies, as long as the latter don’t present any evidence contrary to their belief system. In short, such books often talk in scientific lingo while showing a complete lack of understanding of the scientific method. In this book, Wayne manages to navigate these rocky shores because he’s both a scientist and a longtime tai chi practitioner who genuinely accepts that there may be more at work in the practice than science fully understands. Thus, he knows the importance of testable hypotheses and when a study needs to be validated by more a robust follow-up study, but he also reports on the traditional beliefs and isn’t adverse to writing about studies evaluating the benefits of spirituality (note: showing that being spiritual has benefits doesn’t mean that the benefits result from anything spiritual or supernatural.)

The book has 14 chapters divided into three parts. The first part introduces the reader to tai chi, describes the dimensions along which tai chi has been shown to offer benefits (the authors call these “the 8 active ingredients of Tai Chi,” relating them to pharmacological medicines), and explains how tai chi can be simplified for beginners (even the short form sequences take a while to be memorized—let alone building any grasp of the intricacies of said forms.) The second part consists of six chapters that report the findings of studies on the health effects of tai chi, as well as discussing the possible mechanisms of those benefits. The topics discussed in this section include: increased balance, bone density, pain mitigation, cardiovascular health, mental performance, psychological well-being, and sleep quality. The book’s last part suggests ways in which the reader can build a tai chi practice. The five chapters in this section deal with the interactive practices of tai chi (tai chi isn’t just the solo forms that you’ve seen elderly people do in the park), integrating tai chi with other health and fitness practices, the potential for practicing tai chi at work, the role of tai chi in creative practices, and tai chi as a practice of lifelong learning (this last chapter gives beginners tips about how to start a practice.) There is also an afterword about how tai chi might play a part in building improved health and well-being in the present era.

I found the book to be well-organized to achieve its objective. It’s packed with food for thought. Neophytes will find a lot of benefit in this book, but I suspect even advanced practitioners can glean insights—particularly if said advanced practitioner hasn’t been reading up on the scientific findings. Humor, quotes, and stories are used to lighten the tone and illustrate key points. There are some photos and other graphics where needed (mostly in chapter 3), but they are relatively sparse for a book on a practice like tai chi. (That’s not a complaint. I think there are far too many attempts to teach movement arts through books—an impossible task—and not enough effort put into conveying the kind of ancillary information that is transmissible in book form.)

I’d recommend this book for anyone who’s interested in knowing more about the health benefits of tai chi, and moving beyond the platitudes often heard but seldom evaluated.

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2 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi by Peter M. Wayne & Mark Fuerst

  1. Pingback: BOOK REVIEW: Low Back Pain ed. by Jeffrey N. Katz, M.D. [A Harvard Med School Guide] « Stories & Movement

  2. Pingback: BOOK REVIEW: Better Balance by Salamon and Manor « Stories & Movement

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