It is 8am on a Monday and on Level 13 of the NUH Medical Centre, a trim figure is leading a small group of people in what appears to be a slowed-down form of martial art, pivoting and swirling through a series of slow, graceful and fluid movements. 


Meet Associate Professor Lau Tang Ching, Vice-Dean of Education at NUS Medicine and tai-chi teacher to the dozen or so NUHS staff who turn up enthusiastically each Monday morning to go through their paces with him. “It is not just a physical exercise. You have to be mindful and slow as you go through the movements, and that helps to reduce stress and anxiety,” he said.


An early introduction


The man knows what he’s talking about. When he was nine, his father, a tai-chi enthusiast, took him to learn the martial art at the Kallang Community Centre. That not only sparked his interest in tai-chi, but also awakened his interest in other martial art forms, such as shaolin kung-fu and tán-tuǐ. He went on to practice the various martial arts till he turned 18, when he took a hiatus to serve his national service obligations and pursue medical studies.


It was not until 2007 when Assoc Prof Lau's fondness for tai chi took on professional relevance. As a member of the National Arthritis Foundation, the rheumatologist realised that there was progressively more evidence proving that tai-chi can be beneficial for patients with joint pains, and could prevent falls too. What originated as a martial art could provide a relaxing, low-intensity form of exercise that could be practised by people of all age groups for health benefits.

It’s good for health


Specifically, tai-chi helps in the strengthening of muscles, improve one’s sense of balance and flexibility, he said. As a rheumatologist specialising in knee osteoarthritis and fracture prevention, these benefits resonated closely with his medical specialties and led him to join the Tai Chi for Health Institute, founded in 2010 with the purpose of empowering people to improve their health and wellness through tai-chi. Assoc Prof Lau is the current chairman of this non-profit organisation.


Subsequently, he worked with TCHI’s founder, Dr Paul Lam, a family physician, to train hundreds of tai-chi instructors in Singapore. These teachers are trained to promote and teach simplified forms of sūn-style tai-chi (one of five main tai-chi styles). Forget bone-crunching, tissue-rending moves: compared to other styles, sūn-style tai-chi is better suited to people with joint problems, because movements are smooth and controlled and do not strain joints and ligaments.


Exercise benefits apart, tai-chi also calms the mind and helps to release mental tension.


And good for life


“Learning Tai-chi can also help one in approaching life,” Assoc Prof Lau added. How’s that? “The magic of tai-chi lies in its principles. Practice tai-chi without giving heed to its principles and it will look like any random dance or exercise,” he explained. For example, the slow, continuous, flowing movements against imagined forms of resistance can be translated to perseverance in life – to make slow but steady progress. And when a practitioner is in full flow, his posture is upright and there is proper weight transfer. This expresses the belief in the principle of righteousness in life, demonstrated by the tai chi practitioner’s adoption of a stance that provides centeredness and surefootedness.

Assoc Prof Lau teaches tai-chi at Bishan Park every Sunday at 4.30pm.

The sūn-style of tai chi that Assoc Prof teaches is a condensed version that is taught over 10 lessons. Students who want to learn more of the sūn-style are welcome to stay back after lessons. “Different people have different skillsets but just like other things in life, practice makes perfect. As long as the student is keen to learn, attends classes and practices regularly, there should be no major difficulty in picking up the movements, so beginners need not worry too much.”


While his lessons are usually held in the early mornings, there is no best time to learn tai-chi. But since people who practice tai-chi tend to be older, they wake up earlier, and start the routine when the sun is not high in the sky.


Seeing the big picture


So what does being a vice-dean, doctor and tai chi teacher mean in the bigger scheme of things for the father of three, whose wife is a fellow clinician at the NUHS, and who is also known to be handy with a camera at School events? “I live my life in eight-year cycles, with my objective changing slightly every cycle,” he says. “We should learn something new for the first two years and become good at it. The new set of knowledge or skills can then be integrated with pre-existing ones to create new approaches to problem-solving. This will take another four to five years. Finally, for the next one to two years, it is important to find a successor to carry on with the project. This frees up time for a new project.”

That new project is educating the next generation of doctors and nurses, to improve the healthcare system so that the patients can benefit. The Ministry of Health (MOH) recently introduced the three “Beyonds” to keep healthcare in Singapore good and affordable as demand rises.


Assoc Prof Lau has his own take on the three “Beyonds”, which he is inculcating in students, to help them achieve those established by the Ministry of Health. They are: Beyond Self to Others (thinking not only of yourself, but also what is good for others), Beyond Competency to Mastery (moving beyond just being good at what you are doing, to achieving mastery in order to create new knowledge by integrating current forms and fields of knowledge), and Beyond Patient to System (healing the healthcare system, while treating the patient).


He is also actively working in osteoporosis and fracture prevention research, all of which is related to his specialty, rheumatology. All a part of doing his bit to help in meeting the challenges of caring for an ageing population through increasing healthspan and lifespan. This, he says, means that the elderly are living healthy and active, happy lives.


And that pleases him immensely. “When you see people smile while looking at your photos, you feel happy too. This is also the reason why I love cooking. The joy is in cooking for others and watching them enjoy your food. And the same goes for tai-chi: the results may not be immediate, but having people with the same passion coming together and getting healthier together, it makes me happy.”

Some of the participants who learn tai-chi from Assoc Prof Lau are his patients.