East Meets West: Complimentary Treatment Modality


Presented at the


American Cancer Society Conference


Asian American Advisory Board
"Looking at Cancer Through an Asian Lens"



Boston Public Library Copley Square

September 28, 2000

Master Yon G. Lee
Tai Chi Instructor
Department of Athletics
Harvard University

(Edited and Revised October 2, 2000)

Introductions by Farah Pandlith, Moderator


Mr. Lee has served as the Senior Advisor and Chief Instructor for the Harvard Radcliffe Tai Chi Club for the past 15 years. His interest in Tai Chi far precedes the common use of the phrase "alternative medicine" within the American medical community. From 1984 to 1987, Mr. Lee collaborated on a research project at the Massachusetts General Hospital regarding the effects of Tai Chi - Chi Kung on tumors in laboratory mice. He has applied the benefits of Tai Chi to several other medical conditions including diabetes and back & knee problems. Mr. Lee was born in China and came to America at the age of 10. His extensive educational background includes studies at Brandeis University where he studied nuclear physics and at the Chinese University of Hong Kong where he studied Chinese music and tai chi.

I want to thank the organizers at the American Cancer Society, in particular, the Directors of the Asian American Advisory Board for assembling the panelists together here to exchange views on East West treatments. Ten years ago, this would not have been possible.

I have been asked to tell you about effectiveness of tai chi as treatment. Tai chi is an ancient art with over 2,000 years history. However, since I only have a few minutes, I will attempt to present both a classical description of tai chi and offer my analytical representation in western paradigm of tai chi. Then I will discuss briefly of a laboratory experiment that my colleagues and I have done at MGH. Followed by a few case studies on a modified treatment for healing. I will wrap up with an explanation with example on those treatments.

Tai chi is an old collection of movements based on the philosophical foundation of Taoism and designed to exercise the body and mind for balance and harmony. Most Americans are familiar with this concept. And that is the symbol of Yin & Yang. The principal of duality, positive and negative, male and female, etc. According to Taoism the human body is a microcosmic model of the universe. In this universe there exist a life force called "chi" (different from chi in tai chi). The Chinese character is a composite of the human radical with the character for rice in the center, giving you a character for air or breath. This "chi" is life to the body, permeating and connecting all the organs and all parts. It forms a network of meridians or channels, which is the theoretical framework of Traditional Chinese Medicine. For a healthy system this chi must be in balance, in equilibrium, or in harmony with all parts of the body as represented by yin and yang. If there is a blockage in the flow of chi causing an imbalance in your system, your health is impaired.

For over 2 thousand years, Chinese believe that the movements of tai chi keeps the body in balance and therefore healthy. Most people in China begin practicing tai chi either when they are old or having health problems. It is a common sight for American tourists in China to see groups of older people practicing tai chi in parks in the morning. On a parallel development, the Buddhist sect also have their own sets of health exercise called "chi kung" (qigong in Pinyin). There are others too many to mention in this talk. For the purpose of this presentation, if you would indulge me, I will use tai chi in the generic term: representing tai chi, chi kung, and others.

I took an interest in tai chi when I was a student traveling in China in the early 70's prior to the Nixon visit. 15 years ago administrators at Harvard asked me to teach tai chi to students as part of the Recreation Program helping students "relax". I have been there since. Harvard Crimson, the undergraduate newspaper listed tai chi as one of the "100 Things Students Should Do Before Graduating" from Harvard.

What can tai chi do and not do? What exactly in western scientific terms is chi?

First of all, in western scientific terms, on the surface, a life energy that keeps the body in balance or heals itself and represented by the Yin and Yang is not very "scientific". However, upon closer inspection there are some very interesting and close resemblances. Let's look at the Yin and Yang again. Plus and minus. According to this Taoist principle, there was Chaos at the very beginning. Just like the Book of Genius, Chaos gives the Tao. Tao gives Ying and Yang that give the Four Corners. A mirror image of this gives 8 corners in the same fashion as the positive and negative quartrents for the X Y Z coordinates in 3 dimensional space. Or, in numerical representation, if you put Yin (which is represent as a broken line) and Yang (which is represent as a solid line) together 3 at a time in different order you have the permutations of 8. These are the 8 Trigrams. The permutation of these 8 trigrams, 2 at a time are 64, which are 8 squared. Some of you will note that this is the basis of the Book of Changes, the I Ching. In mathematical representation this is 2 to the order of 8, the binary system to the 8 power. From the earliest time, the ancients had attached to every move in tai chi, an I Ching representation for that movement in binary (or digital) format (see illustration).

What other relations can we derive from these associations? First of all, tai chi is based on the philosophical foundation of Taoism. Second that philosophical principle gives a format of binary representation and a distinct link to each tai chi move. Furthermore, through the Book of Changes, there is also a link to divination: a (Chinese) system that predicts the future or explains the past. Is there a link or can we find a link for health maintenance of the body?

In scientific paradigm, the closest western model that would interface with this eastern concept is the energy model for electricity and magnetism. I propose that we look at the human body as a chi mass and that this chi mass generates a chi energy field in the same fashion as the earth generates its magnetic field. Through personal experience, in examining the movements of tai chi, I have found that the most optimal movements (highest energy flow) are the ones when the two hands of the body are at parallel or perpendicular to each other. Most particularly when the movements of the fingers are in perpendicular to the thumbs. I further postulate that each movement generates a line of force in the same analogy as in the lines of flux in a magnetic field. Over time, a reservoir of chi is attained much in the same fashion as in charging a battery: in this case, a human battery.

Furthermore, this chi reservoir can be divided into smaller units. Each unit has an orientation or direction which I will label "spin" plus or minus. A healthy system is one which all the units of chi are in unison with each other or that the spin in alignment with the body. An ailment in the body would be a perturbation (either positive or negative) of the field alignment. To rectify that perturbation, a re-alignment of the field is needed.

I stop here to make a simple analogy, comparing the conventional representation of cancer with that of tai chi: un-control growth of dis-orientated cells. In tai chi representation, that would be a perturbation of the alignment of the chi field.

In the process of applying chi for healing, you would have a chi of higher reservoir to balance the chi in a smaller or lower reservoir. This transmission of higher energy to a lower energy is found in electric generators. This is called Faraday's Law, generating energy by induction. If you recall your basic science class, turning metal wires across a magnetic field generates a flow of electrons in the wire. This effect is called the Galvin's Effect. In healing, if you have a diseased body, you use a strong healthy body to transmit chi energy onto it to balance that "disturbed" chi, in the same fashion as you use a strong magnetic in restoring the magnetism in a "weak" bar magnet.

In the laboratory of Mass General Hospital, my colleagues and I decided to test this theory of inducing my chi energy onto the chi in laboratory mice. We wish to measure the effects, if any, on the growth of transplanted murine tumors in the mice under controlled laboratory environment.

My lab partner injected cancer cells in the mice and randomized them into groups: controlled, stressed and chi groups. The controlled we left alone, the stressed group we shake the cage for 30 minutes each day. The chi group, I apply a chi field for 30 minutes each day. (For those you who are interested in the exact details of that, please talk with me after the workshop.) The mice in the stressed group grew tumors of 1 cm in diameter by the end of 7 days. The controlled group has an average of 36 days. The chi intervention group 45 days. For those of you who are interested in the statistical numbers, the standard deviation is 3.1 days for controlled and 2.2 for the chi group.

One of the major criticisms from western scientists and particularly MDs, is that Eastern Medicine is mind - body medicine. Mind Body medicine implies that the patient must accept or believe that the treatment will work or can work. It also implies that the treatment can work when the patient wants it to work even if the treatment actually can not work. In western medical nomenclature: it is called the placebo effect. It is in your mind. It is my hope that my mouse model shows that it is different.

But will this model work with humans? I found that although conceptually the model works but not with the same dimensions on the parameters. Looking back at the mouse model, I am over a hundred times in weight greater than the mice are. With people, we need higher volume in the reservoir, since the healer and patient are of the same dimensions. Thus, to effect changes in human dimensions, we need either someone or something that is a hundred time larger. Someone or something. I found something. Through trial and errors, I found the high energy source in a modified procedure of "ginger and scallion".

In the healing application of martial arts, masters often use a mixture of herbs to mend injuries resulted from students' practice, either from themselves or on each other. One such mixture is a composition of ginger roots and green onion (or scallion) boiled in rice wine. I use one part of ginger, one part of scallion (the white part), and enough rice wine to cover. Bring this mixture to a boil. Drain in a cloth bag. Apply this poultice of ginger and scallion on the injured part. When the mixture is cooled after being applied on the injured area, I would manipulate the chi (using my hand) on the injured area to "re-align" the chi in that area. I would repeat this, heating the mixture with the rice wine and applying on the injured area. This process normally takes about an hour to hour and half.

Patient Age Problem Condition
Keith S. 14 Leg Hit by car, broke in two places, bad
leg would not grow at the same
rate as the un-injured leg.
Kathleen K. 62 Liver Swell and harden from alcohol
Maryellen B. 24 Wrist Twisted from fall, could not grip
or put pressure on hand
Millie T. 4 Stomach Severe Pain and lack of appetite
Ramana A. 30 Toe Tonail grew inward

Rubbing of poultice on sore or inflamed parts of the body is a common in many cultures in European. To give you a western analogy of this I would like to point out the accident on the bent steel beam on the Tobin Bridge in Boston a few years back. A lumber truck accident left the steel beam bent so bad that it required replacing. That would have meant that the bridge would have to be closed for repair and traffic re-routed for 2-3 months. Fortunately, new technologies at that time permits the steel beam to be superheated on that section to a very heat temperature. After attaining and sustaining a designated temperature, jacks were used to straighten the beam slowly, and then let cool. This is the same with the ginger and scallion poultice. The new technology in this case is the manipulation of "chi" energy by trained professionals in tai chi on the affected area.

On a very personal level, I have experienced the bittersweet successes and limitations of tai chi. I too have suffered losses in the fight against cancer. I lost my mother, older sister and younger brother all within 4 years to cancer. In caring for my family, I can remember that whenever she could my mother practiced tai chi to manage her pain suffering from cancer; my brother did not. At the end my mother went on with a serenity of peace and purpose whereas my brother grasped at straws until his very last days. He told me that in those last days of his life at the hospital, through our medical treatments we pulled him back from the "other side" when he had already left us. For him that last week was like "hell". He was gone. We should not had brought him back. He begged that we now let him go.

Of the entire living universe as we know it, only humans choose to alter the natural order of life. We tend to fix things when those things deviate from the norm as we "like it"; we tend to prolong things including life when we refuse to let go. As humans, we also have the awesome power and the unfathomable geniuses to change our environment and ourselves. This is the paradox of life and the dichotomy of human nature, as exemplified by the representation of the Ying and Yang. Tai Chi was developed to prolong life, going against the natural order of the universe.

Through the practice of tai chi, particularly in teaching tai chi, I try to instill a lesson of life to my students, those around me and myself that we examine life as we are living it. The quality of the present is so important. Are we so hurried and so absent of life in our daily routine that we slave each day to make another extra buck so to invest in our future but only to find later that we don't have the health to enjoy it. Or are we content enough with our lots, with our family, with our friends, and with our environment, in balance and in harmony? From the lessons of tai chi we must remain cognizant that through the cycle of life, there is beginning and there is end. From the time of birth, the direction of life is forward. Like all cycles, there is an end. While we cannot prevent the end, we can certainly choose the path towards that end. We can approach that end with purpose and peace. I hope that through the practice of tai chi we can share the awesome power of self health. We can. Together we can choose to live in harmony and learn to keep our life in balance.

From time of antiquity the ancients believed that tai chi is the "ultimate" tool of balance and harmony for prolonging the natural order of the universe. Do we believe that? As you ponder that for a solution I will offer this as my closing remark. Though I hope to live and to celebrate a rich life of 150, and I also hope that all of you will stay around to do tai chi with me and have fun in the sun.

Thank you.