Let’s Talk Tai Chi

Imagine you’re watching US cable television and a commercial comes on for a new prescription medication. It’s a typical drug ad, featuring shots of older people gardening and biking and bowling and parasailing and tossing basketballs effortlessly through hoops as a narrator explains the benefits of this new miracle pill:

Pill bottle with warnings.…excellent evidence of benefit for preventing falls, osteoarthritis, Parkinson disease, rehabilitation for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and improving cognitive capacity in older adults. There is good evidence of benefit for depression, cardiac and stroke rehabilitation, and dementia. There is fair evidence of benefit for improving quality of life for cancer patients, fibromyalgia, hypertension, and osteoporosis…

Systematic reviews of general health and fitness benefits show excellent evidence of benefit for improving balance and aerobic capacity in those with poor fitness. There is good evidence for increased strength in the lower limbs. There is fair evidence for increased well-being and improved sleep.

The happy images continue as you brace for the list of horrible side effects that always follows in these ads (dry mouth, constipation, dizziness, trouble swallowing, impaired judgement, uncontrolled movements, seizures, extreme high blood sugar leading to coma or death…) but instead you hear:

There are no side effects.

Would you take that pill?

Mike Milburn says (with a laugh) that whenever he poses that question to a room full of people in Cape Breton, all the hands shoot up. But when he reveals the “pill” is actually an activity — tai chi — the response is different:

[O]f course, it isn’t a pill, you have to put work into it and effort, so it’s hard to get people to do it.


I picked tai chi as the first topic to discuss with Milburn in 2020 because I am one of those people who makes New Year’s resolutions or rather, I am one of those people who makes the same New Year’s resolution repeatedly: get more exercise. I’m okay with this because I figure even if I “get more exercise” for a few months only, it’s better than not getting more exercise at all.

As a serial resolver, I’m also interested in new forms of exercise, so I jumped at the chance to find out more about tai chi:

…a meditative marital art that consists of a series of gentle movements designed to strengthen and relax the body and mind.

I found that definition in an article Milburn sent me from the Canadian Family Physician, a peer-reviewed medical journal published by the Canadian College of Family Physicians (CCFP). It’s a literature review of the health benefits of tai chi which I’m attaching here because it’s short and informative (and the source of the health benefits I cited at the beginning of this article):

TaiChi benefits CFPC


Tai chi is also an activity with a great back story, which Milburn recounted to me last Friday by phone:

…It was originally a martial art for fighting and if you look at some of the pictures of the palace guard in China, in the 19th century, big guys with no neck that you wouldn’t want to meet in a back alley, …what they used for fighting was tai chi. If you go on YouTube you can see in Beijing some of the national competitions and people actually do these slow routines and they might twirl and jump in the air and have swords. It was really kind of the evolution of tai chi, people realized it was so good for your health that it’s largely practiced as a health exercise these days for sure.



Tai chi exists in a number of forms — each named for the person who developed it. (“If you translated it into Cape Breton it would be like Campbell-style versus MacDonald-style,” laughs Milburn.) It is considered a “soft” martial art, as opposed to something like karate, which is considered a “hard” martial art, but sometimes those lines blur:

When you watch Chen style [the original style of tai chi, named for its creator, Chen] you can see the softness but you can also see elements of the hard style in it as well.

The most commonly taught form of tai chi today is Yang style, which is said to have been invented by a servant of the Chen family:

The story is that one of the servants secretly watched them [do tai chi] and began to learn himself, behind the bushes by surreptitiously watching. And when he was caught, he could have been executed for stealing the family secret, these things were all secret techniques back in the day, but he was so good at it, the master gave him blessings to actually continue to practice and join in. But he went on to develop his own approach to it and his last name was Yang…and that became the most popular style.

I asked Milburn how he first came to take up tai chi.

My own journey, I guess, went back to the mid-80s when I was at university and had these exciting, formative experiences with leaving Cape Breton and meeting people from all over the world…and I found this tai chi thing and I was interested in strange, odd things [laughs] took it up and I haven’t looked back really, with tai chi.


We discussed many of the physical health benefits associated with tai chi — in particular its role in fall prevention:

Falls are a huge thing, we actually even have a group that started at Nova Scotia Health Authority…a fall prevention group of people who try to..develop fall prevention strategies and education and all that kind of stuff, it’s a huge issue. Older people, they break their hips [when] they fall and it costs a huge amount to the healthcare system.

A very significant minority of them actually die within a year of breaking their hip. It’s very serious and if you look at the evidence on fall prevention, tai chi can actually reduce falls by up to 60% — 70% in some studies. So, compared to even specific physiotherapy exercises developed for fall prevention, tai chi is more effective.

Tai Chi in Bishan Park

Tai Chi in Bishan Park. (Photo by Atelierdreiseitl, CC by SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

And unlike many physical activities, says Milburn, tai chi is relatively easy to take up:

…people who aren’t fit and who have chronic problems of different kinds, they can do tai chi safely. There’s even a seated version for people who are in a wheelchair or can’t even stand…There’s a starting point for everybody and it can go from literally sitting to the point where you can jump in the air and do a twirl. There’s something for everybody…[I]f you look at, even something like golf, which is one of the most benign kind of sports you know, you’ve seen yourself, people golf and then they give it up at 75…there’s very few people that make it to 80 and can still golf, even. Whereas tai chi, you can be 102 and still doing it.

Milburn sounds honestly baffled when discussing the comparative popularity of tai chi vs. yoga (especially when the conversation rolls around to yoga with goats) although he’s quick to say that there’s nothing wrong with yoga and those who do it and enjoy it should certainly continue to do so. It’s just that he thinks tai chi offers “more bang for your buck” health-wise:

[W]hat’s key to why tai chi is such a powerful exercise is it really combines the meditation with the gentle movement, so it’s often described as a moving meditation. And…I find an awful lot of people who can’t meditate — they try to meditate and they can’t sit still and they feel that they have ADHD — a lot of people are like that but they find…they can actually do tai chi and get that meditative tai chi benefit because they’re actually doing something as they’re sitting there. So that real slowing down and focusing on your movements helps you to develop that meditative skill.

And here, Milburn cited some evidence of his own:

I did a research study for a whole year, a class out in Main-a-Dieu, a few years back and I presented the research at a health conference at the University here but what I found, it was very interesting, you saw a lot of physical benefits in terms of better mobility and better functioning and less pain and all that kind of stuff, but also you saw a whole host of mental health benefits. People had less social anxiety, better sleep, less depression, like that too.


So, let’s say you’re intrigued and you’d like to try tai chi, where would you begin?

Milburn’s first response is directed to anyone who has cancer or who has had cancer, because they are eligible to take free tai chi lessons through the Cape Breton Cancer Centre, where social worker Tom MacNeil has:

…created a whole set of programs…to help support people with their cancer journey and one of them is a tai chi class, and if you look at the evidence (it’s all about evidence these days, evidence-based medicine and all that business), what oncologists’ groups have come out and said is it’s so important during treatment and after treatment that people exercise that it should be considered an essential part of the treatment in itself.

Milburne also teaches a weekly class on Tuesday afternoons at the Sydney River Y’s Men’s Club. He charges $100 for 10 sessions during which, he says, he focuses on teaching people six simple movements:

You have to learn a routine, which is like dance moves or something, where you have to learn the sequence of dance moves, that kind of thing. So to get started with it takes a little bit of work…The main kind of tai chi in Canada today, I’ll be a bit critical of it…I don’t know how it got started, they tend to focus on teaching people 108 moves, so you can imagine you come to class and somebody says, “Okay, we’re going to learn 108 moves!” Honestly, that’s just stressful for most people…[I]’s this constant process of trying to learn all these complicated things and you’re not really going to delve into what I would call the inner part of tai chi, the meditation part…It’s very powerful once you do begin to learn to loosen up your body using your mind and can get that meditative and deep breathing elements, and if you’re just constantly trying to learn moves, you don’t get to that point.

Milburn figures focusing on six simple movements may also help adults overcome what he sees as one of their biggest challenges to learning new things:

[A] lot of people say adults can’t learn as well as children but the truth is, if you look at the research, they’re not that far behind kids in their ability to learn but I think one of the great hindrances is the self consciousness, you’re so aware of how lousy you are when you’re in front of other people.

[L]ook at a musical instrument, the kids start playing it and they’re completely lousy, it’s horrible to listen to and everybody just loves it! Like, you can go to a school concert and the kids are up there just playing and its horrible, it’s torturous, but all the parents just go bananas and they love it, it’s wonderful. But if you’re an adult and you start learning an instrument people just look at you. And that’s what people feel like when they start to learn tai chi is it’s just a completely new, awkward thing …You have to not compare yourself to other people and just do your own thing and go at your own pace.

As always, I will leave you with a video from a community video project by friend-of-the-Spectator Madeline Yakimchuk in which Dr. Milburn tells you what he just told me:





Dr. Michael P. Milburn (BSc, MSc, PhD, DipAc, DAc) has a background in science, training in complementary medicine, and two decades of experience with alternative approaches to healthcare. In his clinical work, he finds individualized solutions to common chronic health problems, incorporating Tai Chi, Qi Gon, nutrition, cooking, acupuncture and herbal medicine.




Featured photo: People practise Tai Chi in the snow at a park in Shenyang, Liaoning province, China via Reuters