Paul Lam, MD, a family physician and lecturer of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, is a world leader in the field of tai chi for health improvement. Lam has created several Tai Chi for Health programs, supported by multiple organizations, that have reached more than 1 million people. In addition, Lam has written four books: Overcoming Arthritis, Tai Chi for Diabetes, Tai Chi for Beginners and the 24 Forms, and Teaching Tai Chi Effectively.
You wear a number of professional hats. How would you describe yourself?
Essentially, two jobs: The first job is family physician for the last 30 years. I run a medical practice, and I also teach graduate doctors to become family physicians. The second job is becoming more important and is taking more of my time. I train people to use tai chi to improve their health. I’m instrumental in creating Tai Chi for Health programs, and I train master trainers and instructors who then teach this program to help people, especially older people.
I very much enjoy creating the Tai Chi for Health programs, training people to teach the programs, doing research for those programs, and writing books to help people learn the programs. That gives me immense fulfillment because I know that the things I have done have not only helped the people I worked with face to face, but have helped many, many people I have never met. My work has helped them to improve the quality of their lives without my ever knowing them. That is very fulfilling.
Why did you decide to study tai chi?
When I graduated from medical school 34 years ago, my arthritis, which I had from my early teens due to malnutrition, got much worse. It was so bad that I really had to do something about it. I did not want to take pills the rest of my life, and so I started learning tai chi for my arthritis. Then, because whatever I do I like to do well, I got really involved in learning tai chi. I began teaching and going to competitions, and I made many tai chi friends.
And you won a gold medal.
I did! It’s not what a family doctor usually does, but I respected my teachers, and they wanted me to go to competitions, and I did it out of respect. It was nice to win a gold medal, but it’s not that important. What is important, I felt the benefit and realized one day that it’s my responsibility to do something about tai chi for health. Also, I am a medical doctor with a chronic condition that affected my life, and so I felt that I was the right person to facilitate a new movement in tai chi. That is, to modify tai chi to make it more suitable and safer for people with chronic conditions. In fact, for anybody who wants to learn tai chi for health, the program we eventually produced is much more effective at improving people’s health and preventing chronic conditions than traditional tai chi.
So using your knowledge of traditional Chinese martial arts, you modified it for the 21st Century.
That’s right, but I did not do it alone. I asked for help from professors in Western medicine, experts in different fields, and I also asked my colleagues in tai chi, so I coordinated. I also contributed because I could see the full picture, made up of three parts of the story: patients, medical professionals, and tai chi experts. As a team, we worked on different parts of the program. So it’s definitely not my work alone! As a matter of fact, something really good needs a big team.