Healthy Body, Healthy Mind
HOUSTON, October 3, 2012 — October brings to Asia Society Texas Center a series of Lifelong Learning classes promoting health and wellness through the traditional Chinese meditative exercises qigong and t'ai chi.
Asia Society Texas Center Education Coordinator Paul Pass recently spoke with the founder of Living Well Therapies, Henderson Smith, to gain a better understanding of the benefits of these gentle mind-body practices that also carry martial applications.
Could you tell us about your professional background and how you became involved with Chinese martial arts and meditative practices?
I am the founder of Living Well Therapies. We are an organization that offers integrated solutions to worksite, community, [and] individual health and well-being with a focus on mind-body practices like qigong and t'ai chi.
Coming out of a 20-year career in the insurance business — as an employee benefits broker for the last 14 years of that period of time — I owned a company called Benefits Design and Financial Services, and we were a full service [firm] evaluating and implementing employee benefits, including major medical insurance, disability, life, and retirement plans.
The transition to the wellness business was prompted by having [become] real good friends with the clients that I worked with for a number of years — Girl Scouts, as an example. I would watch...[these] friends of mine continue to need more and more medical treatment, more service from medical providers, and find them having more difficulty obtaining and retaining insurance coverage. So, I like to say I spent…20 years…in the business of helping people gain access to medical treatment, and now, I focus on trying to help people not to need as much of it.
What are t'ai chi and qigong, and how do they differ?
Let me first define qigong. The q and i, pronounced chee, stands for breath or energy, the vital life force of the body…that keeps both the mind and body alive. Gong is work or movement. T'ai chi is more defined as the harmony and the balance of the universe within ourselves, and it is also correlated to the martial application of this energy we call qi. It is a non-combative internal expression of martial arts.
So, differentiating the two, qigong would be like the trunk and the root of the tree, t'ai chi would be like branches of the tree — so, different styles of an expression. Qigong would be more still; t'ai chi would be more dynamic or moving. Qigong would be more internal; t'ai chi would be more externally expressive. Qigong would be cultivating a conscious awareness, developing skills and discipline for using your energy; t'ai chi would be the physical expression of that energy through your body.
The same energy that can be used in martial applications to hurt is used in health enhancement, healing, and recovery. It is not good or bad energy; it is how it is being used.
What are the physical and mental benefits of practicing t'ai chi and qigong?
There have been a lot of studies done…researching both the physiological and the psychological benefits of doing qigong and t'ai chi. In fact, over the period [from] 1993 to 2007, there were 576 studies done on the physiological and psychological benefits of qigong and t'ai chi. They evaluated 6400 participants from 13 different countries and looked at 163 different conditions; they published 158 of those studies in English-speaking psychological, medical, and nursing journals.
There were  of the most rigorous type of study — randomized controlled trials—[done…], and the preponderance of evidence…indicates a benefit for those that did qigong and t'ai chi over those that did not. In a randomized control[led] trial, you are studying a similar condition across a multiplicity of participants, some who follow one regimen, doctor’s orders, and maybe do a typical exercise program, and the other control group, which does doctor’s orders and a prescribed 8 to 12 week period of qigong and t'ai chi. The benefits range from improving flexibility and balance, stamina and strength, and control and movement of the body. They have studied the effects on cardiovascular systems, and there is...tremendous value and benefit.
Another benefit is shifting the nervous system from stress mode to relaxation mode. There [are] benefit[s] related to managing stress, to balance and fall prevention in the elderly, and [to] improvement in pain management with people who experience chronic back pain, joint, and muscle tension. Fibromyalgia patients have indicated, after one session, a tremendous value and benefit in how they feel. So, there are tremendous benefits across all areas whether [qigong and t'ai chi] is [done for] personal [or] professional [reasons], or just [as a] hobby.
How would you describe your qigong and t'ai chi classes at Asia Society Texas Center?
Qigong and t'ai chi…have [a certain] mysticism about them. Anything we do not understand, tends to be something that we have a challenge engaging, but [qigong and t'ai chi are both] important and…very simple… . Anybody can do [qigong or t'ai chi]! I have had people in my class from 6 years old to 96. Actually, here, at Asia Society Texas Center, there was a lady that was 83 years old during the Grand Opening that was doing the movements with us as…part of [a] demonstration.
You can jump right in, whether you are [a] seasoned [practitioner] or someone that is brand new [to the martial art forms], and realize the value and the benefit[s]. [The classes at Asia Society Texas Center are] very experiential and easy to do. I highly encourage anyone that…even [has] an inkling of interest to pursue [qigong or t'ai chi at Asia Society Texas Center.] Check it out!