Breath of Life
Do martial arts and meditation have medical benefits? Rami Rones, a former fighter who works with cancer patients, says yes, and area hospitals are paying attention.
stretching the mind Rami Jones, who first learned about meditative disciplines such as tai chi at a young age, says, "I realized that there is all this skill in our body that most people don't know [how to tap into]." (Globe Staff Photo / Suzanne Kreiter)
By the time he was 32, Ramel "Rami" Rones had won martial arts tournaments from New York to Shanghai, and he was looking for a new challenge that could provide the same rush as performing in front of a crowd. He found it when a student named Bob Ellal approached him at a kung fu seminar in Mystic, Connecticut, with a daunting question:
"You want to help me beat cancer?"
It was 1994, and Rones was already using what his martial arts training had taught him about body mechanics to treat people with joint and back injuries. It didn't occur to him that he couldn't help a lymphoma patient who was bracing for his second bone marrow transplant. Rones tapped into his knowledge of an ancient Chinese stretching and meditative practice called "chi kung" to help Ellal build his strength and focus on the flow of energy through his body. "My doctors rolled their eyes when I told them what I was doing," recalls Ellal, who later learned his physicians didn't expect him to live. "But after I started surviving and getting through chemotherapy without getting really sick, they said, 'Don't stop!'"
Rones began working as a "mind/body" consultant with the same fervor he had applied to his kung fu training. He studied aging and physiology, yoga and dance, and combined that knowledge with his experience as a fighter to address the needs of clients who began to seek him out. Today, with interest in Eastern mind/body practices on the rise, the 45-year-old Rones is at the center of several clinical studies at area hospitals exploring how meditative disciplines such as tai chi might have medical benefits for patients suffering from a variety of maladies, including arthritis and, yes, cancer.
When he's not working with private clients, Rones is running seniors through a program he helped design to test tai chi's benefits for patients with osteoarthritis of the knee at Tufts-New England Medical Center, or consulting with researchers at Harvard Medical School's Osher Institute, or leading a chi kung session at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. "You cannot be in Rami's presence for more than five seconds and not feel energized," says Cynthia Medeiros, until recently the executive director of the Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies at Dana-Farber, where Rones has been running his weekly session for five years.
Traditional Chinese medicine has prescribed "internal arts" like tai chi and chi kung to complement treatment for a wide range of maladies for centuries. More recently, Western researchers have been trying to quantify the benefits of such practices - measuring everything from increases in muscle strength and white blood cell counts to brain waves. Initial studies show that tai chi, for example, can improve balance, stamina, and flexibility in older adults. It also can reduce high blood pressure.
Isolating movements from tai chi and other practices, Rones created a regimen that combines stretching and strengthening with meditation. Larry Lucchino, a two-time cancer survivor and president of the Red Sox, met Rones through his Dana-Farber oncologist when he was having back trouble. It cleared up in a matter of months, and Lucchino has continued training with Rones roughly twice a week for five years. Rones, Lucchino says, "has taken me to a different place with respect to valuing the importance of stretching, breathing, meditation."
Experience made Rones a believer in the powers of these exercises long before he became involved in scientific research. A native of Israel, he started down the martial arts path as a teen, after his parents sought an alternative healer to help their son with chronic neck and back pain and digestive troubles. The healer referred Rones to a Zen Buddhist who taught kung fu and tai chi. "I realized that there is all this skill in our body that most people don't know [how to tap into]," Rones says.
After a stint in the Israeli army, Rones moved to Boston in 1983 to study kung fu with Yang, Jwing-Ming, a noted martial arts expert. He found such a wealth of material that he studied virtually full time at Yang's Martial Arts Association for a decade, living frugally and working odd jobs between training sessions. "We trained Christmas, New Year's," Rones says. "Imagine 10 years in Boston before I realized what's happening on a summer night in Harvard Square."
On Tuesday evenings at Dana-Farber, Rones shares those skills with people who may need them most. A videocassette left on an A/V cart in the narrow conference room shows the kind of subject matter typically taken up there: "Colony Assays of Hematopoietic Cells Using Methylcellulose Media." But the tables and chairs have been pushed against the wall, and Rones holds forth in a voice still accented with his native Hebrew. "We are shallow breathers," he tells the class. "We have to make a conscious decision to draw the breath in." Breathing deeply increases the oxygen in the blood, Rones says, and it helps calm the mind and relax the body.
Medeiros says sessions like this chi kung class are designed "to help patients and their family members regain a sense of control." To Rones, a patient who improves his physical condition and learns to manage stress improves his odds in treatment, because "you're dealing with the whole" - the whole being the body, breath, mind, energy, and spirit.
Linda Moussouris, 60, of Brookline, became a regular at Rones's class a number of months after beginning treatment for breast cancer. "I'm not telling you that I know for sure that patients who do what I'm doing here are going to dissolve their tumors and their cancer is going to magically disappear," she says. "But at least I know that what I'm doing for myself here makes me feel good, and that can't be bad for me."
Kevin Galvin, an assistant business editor at the Globe, is researching a book on Yang's Martial Arts Association, where Rones trained. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.