Scientific Study of Yoga, Tai Chi, and Qigong

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There’s a great deal of good research surrounding the conditions and mechanisms for healing and wellbeing. And for a variety of reasons, the best of this isn’t in the field of yoga. I’ll share some notes below that give a foundation for good results, along with a framework for successful study, collected from the experience we’ve had with other researchers.

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There are a variety of good uses for yoga, tai chi, and qigong, that include relaxation and release of stress, health and healing, treatment of injury and disease, strength and fitness, and overall wellbeing.

For all of these aims, the supported foundations for practice remain the same, and have two common elements.

  1. Create a relationship between your body and breath, so your breath moves you.
  2. Move your whole body as one body in harmony. This means easily and from your center, rather than as a disconnected collection of parts that are pushed and forced into place.

You’ll find discussion of the former in Dr. Herbert Benson’s research with the Relaxation Response, and of both elements in research of gigong, tai chi, and traditional Asian medicine. You’ll also find great advances here in a growing collection of Western studies, that includes the work of Harvard Neurology Chair, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Rudolph Tanzi.

So if the desired outcome is strength, there isn’t a new set of separate techniques that come into play. It would be inadvisable to make yourself rigidly immovable, and push one part of your body at a time while holding your breath. Similarly, if the desired outcome is easing of anxiety or depression, it would be inadvisable to lie down and do nothing. Whatever the aim, the foundations for breath and movement as health, healing, and performance practice remain the same.

From here, there are sliding variables at your disposal, whether the practice is yoga, tai chi, qigong, or similar. These include adjusting the duration and balance of movement and stillness, selection of forms that require more or less energy, and increase or reduction of repetition in various forms. How these variables are adjusted can further influence outcomes for different kinds of aims and study groups.  But still, the foundations remain the same. They are human foundations. rooted in our biological design.

I’ve always held a couple of thoughts simultaneously, when it comes to discussion of yoga and benefits.  One is from Neil deGrasse Tyson, saying that “science is how we know when someone else is ‘bs-ing’ us.”  It’s a good one to apply in many fields including yoga, which is pretty rich with pretend non-science, like twisting organs to wring out toxins.

And the other is from Dr. Frank Lipman, reminding us “we don’t always need to wait for science to prove what we already know is true from common sense.”  This is also useful in our field, where so many yoga systems hold that “alignment” is achieved through isolating one body part at a time, then mechanically manipulating all these parts individually into the right position.

Of course this doesn’t achieve alignment, defined as positioning that keeps us safe and enables us to accomplish more.  And this is proven out in mountains of data showing injuries and decreased ability following this disconnect, isolate, and manipulate approach.  So it makes sense that the older East Asian martial and healing systems all hold whole-body harmony and movement as the ground for alignment, for every form of human effort.

One of the first challenges is defining the study, so there aren’t too many moving variables.  Yoga is pretty variable itself, so studying the effects of “yoga” is kind of like studying the effects of “food.”  Too broad.

So the result of studies like this tends to be brown – like when you mix all the crayon colors together.  Slightly positive at best, maybe slightly negative, and not all that remarkable one way or the other.  Which is pretty much what yoga studies have revealed.  There’s lots of talk about the positive ones, but looking at the data, they’re not really all that positive.  Partly because yoga is practiced in so many different ways.  And the potential is something much greater.

To get around this challenge, it can help to define the object of study more granularly than just “yoga.”  For example, studying the effects of breath-body connection or natural movement – similar to what Dr. Benson did in the 1980’s with the Relaxation Response, and what tai chi and qigong studies have done for a long while with movement.  This kind of exploration has variability introduced more where you want it, and less where you don’t.  So it’s easier to make sense of your results.


The trick is in the variables.  There are many here, and they dance about quite a lot.  It’s noisy!  I’ll share a few that come to mind.

a) Instructor.  Leading movement introduces much more room for variation than leading poses.  Poses are static elements, it doesn’t take so long to learn this.  But movement, this is something that takes many years to learn for yourself, and then share.  It’s the common ground for tai chi, qigong, traditional medicine, calligraphy, so many of these very old Eastern art forms.  It takes time to get all of this working, clear, in your own body.  So this can be a substantial variable, where an instructor is on this path, for themselves, in their own body, mind, life.

b) Subjects, and stress scales.  Self-reporting can be quite tricky, and really people are the variable here.  We’re all so variable in how we sense and report stress.

For some of us, we’re completed accustomed to being under stress, not moving so well, all the time.  And often we can be so accustomed to it that we don’t notice, it’s not something we would report.  People tend to sense and report a deviation from what’s usual for them.

Also what we’re really thinking of with stress is the chemical state, because this is what carries the health impact. There’s some elasticity between what people sense and the reality of this state, for reasons noted above.  So a chemistry study would be interesting here, and remove some substantial noise.

c) Learning curve.  We can’t assume that when people are led into a way of moving well that they move well right away, or that they progress in the same way, at the same rate.

So leading people through Strala, whether using tai chi, qigong, or yoga forms, will give a variety of results based on where people are on this learning curve.  It’s a bit more complex than, for example, a breathing technique – but even with Herb Benson’s studies, there were clear cohorts that did that practice well, and also that didn’t take it up as easily. So it asks for a longer study.  And as well, the instructor is a confounding factor here.


There’s a wide range of useful options here.  Basics, like understanding hormonal systems and biochemisty, you’ll find in a good biology textbook.  And MEDLINE/PubMed will give you direct access to the research here.

You can also go to more popular sources, including writing by people like Dr. Rudolph Tanzi (Super Brain, Super Genes, Heal), Dr. Frank Lipman (stress and the microbiome), and Dr. Robert Sapolsky (health impact on humans living under constant chemical stress state).

Video: Practice Tai Chi for a Healthy Back



About Strala Yoga Training

Strala combines the movement and healing wisdom of tai chi with the form vocabularies of yoga, tai chi, qigong, and Traditional Chinese and Japanese Medicine, to help people release stress, move easily through challenge, and live radiantly inspiring lives.

It begins with a mindset, that says our best way to get where we’re going is to feel good along the way. It also works miracles for whole health, helping us to find ease in our bodies and minds, and create the right conditions both for healing and optimal performance.

In our Strala Training Courses, you learn to shape your destiny on every level that counts, from your psychology, chemistry and neurology, to your chromosomes and even gene expression. The unique set of skills you develop – for connecting with yourself and others, unblocking your energy, healing what needs healing and accomplishing challenge with ease – uncovers your ability to create the life you want, and be an inspiring leader to the people around you.

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OXFORDSHIRE, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 30: Mike Taylor speaks on stage during #BoFVOICES on November 30, 2018 in Oxfordshire, England. (Photo by Samir Hussein/Getty Images for The Business of Fashion)