How Tai Chi and Qigong Helps the Physically Challenged

You’ve heard this before “Tai Chi Chuan is for everyone-all ages and abilities”. Numerous studies conducted have shown some of the benefits of practicing Tai Chi and Qigong over a period of time can help a person’s  balance and flexibility, relaxation, increase their cognitive ability, and strengthen core muscle groups. It has also been known to lower a person’s blood pressure and the risk for heart disease, and provide joint movement to alleviate arthritis pain.

But how does Tai Chi Chuan and Qigong help the physically challenged? Can Tai Chi stop or slow down tremors in MS and Parkinson’s disease patients? How can flexibility and balance be improved when you are in a wheelchair or use a walker? How does it help people who have suffered the effects of a stroke?

The answer: Adaptability!

Most of the Tai Chi and qigong forms and exercises can be scaled down by sitting in a chair (or wheelchair). Instead of shifting the weight from one leg to the other in standing postures, the weight shift is from side to side (one buttocks to the other). Arm movements are slow and controlled.  If using a walker Tai Chi stepping is modified with the foot movements. Pause between steps to coordinate the arm movements with the stepping. And most importantly, every movement and posture is coordinated with the breath. The 10 Essential Points of Tai Chi Ten Essential Points of Tai Chi still apply whether you are seated or using a walker.

In addition to adapting the steps and movements, the person will benefit from the meditative aspects of Tai Chi and Qigong. After all, Tai Chi Chuan is labeled “meditation in motion” – whether you are sitting or standing.

With consistent practice Chi flow is developed and expressed through the movements; with adjustments to the forms, the healing aspects of Tai Chi and Qigong could have a positive impact on the symptoms of the physically challenged.

Here are a few Tai Chi postures or exercises to try seated:

–      Cloud Hands (Waving Hands Like Clouds)

–      Crouching Tiger (Push)

–      Forming the Ball and Carrying the Ball (side to side)

–      Yang Style 13 Classical Postures

Qigong:

–      Three Water Course

–      Lifting the Sky (courtesy of Anthony Korahais)

Practicing Qigong and Tai Chi Chuan

Every new student that joins one of my classes is asked a simple question – “Why do you want to study Tai Chi?” I usually get the same responses:

  • “To improve my balance, coordination, flexibility.”
  • “ To learn to relax.”
  • “For health and personal wellness.”
  • “To help me with my balance”.

But what about for those who have been studying for a number of months and years? Has your reason for studying Tai Chi changed over the months and years? How often do you practice?  How do you practice?

Many people just starting out understand how relaxed they feel after taking one or two classes with a good instructor. But the common mistake made, especially for beginners, is the dedication to the art of Qigong and Tai Chi Chuan. Qigong and Tai Chi offer a laundry list of possible benefits when performed on a regular basis:

  • Improved body alignment and flexibility
  • Peaceful, meditative movements
  • Bridge between mind, body and spirit
  • Self defense and martial arts
  • Internal healing

In order to reap these and the many other benefits not listed one needs to dedicate time to practice. Just attending a one hour class two or three times a week isn’t enough. A good instructor would encourage his or her students to practice what they learned in class; take ample notes on what they’ve done and bring questions to class; and recognize, over time, any changes that occur personally.

What if I practice incorrectly?

Some students are afraid they will practice “incorrectly”. The operative word here is “practice”! Whether or not it is correct is not important! Taking the time to understand what you have learned is the key; write down your problem areas and bring them to your instructor’s attention– it will be addressed.

What is a good amount of time to practice?

My Sifu always provided us with a gauge: “for every 30 minutes of practice you develop one drop of Chi”. Cultivating and storing chi is essential for your daily life, especially in the chaotic world we live in. So, using that measurement, a good daily practice should last at least 30 minutes. 15 to 20 minutes can set your mind and body on a good direction for you day. If you are able to squeeze in 10 minutes of qigong or run through a form at lunch time that counts, too!

How do you practice? What aspects of practicing Tai Chi interests you the most?

Experienced and novice learners should practice what is in their heart. Decide ahead of time what you plan to do and length of time:

  • Practice your forms, either the entire form or parts of it; focus on problem areas and repeat, repeat, repeat.
  • Think of the martial aspects of the postures – does this improve your execution?
  • Practice with a partner – apply two person form techniques if possible.
  • Note your techniques when using weapons.
  • Most importantly, remember the 10 essential points of Tai Chi.

As you become more disciplined in your daily practice of Qigong and Tai Chi you will notice improvements in your physical, mental and spiritual well being. You will learn to use your “Kung Fu” in everything you do.

So, if you haven’t already, join the Tai Chi revolution – find a good instructor and start now – you won’t regret the results!

How Was Your World Tai Chi and Qigong Day?

World Tai Chi Day and Qigong Day is an annual worldwide event that occurs on the last Saturday in April. It is celebrated in over 100 cities and 80 nations where people come together to breathe together, providing a healing vision for our world — “one nation, one breath”. Starting at 10:00 a.m. local time (April 28 for the Eastern world) there is one mass demonstration of Tai Chi and Qigong. Picture it as a giant wave of energy: starting in Australia, throughout Asia, Africa and continuing to all the continents. Think of it as a giant wave of energy that continuously moves for 24 hours!

Most organized events consist of the mass demonstration at 10:00 a.m. followed by demonstrations of Tai Chi and Qigong forms by various schools. A few highlights from other countries and cities are below:

NYC-Central Park

Solvang, CA

Auckland, NZ

Elsinore, Denmark

Henderson, Nevada

In addition to demonstrations of various styles of Tai Chi Chuan and Qigong, our celebration included a display of healing modalities such as Shen Men ear seeds, creating personal mandalas, and printed information on the benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi Chuan.

No matter how you celebrated this event the goal was to share energy among colleagues in your immediate surroundings as well as around the world.

Long Beach NY-2017 World Tai Chi & Qigong Day

Shen Men Ear Seeds
Shen Men Ear Seeds
Demonstration
Demonstration

 

Tai Chi & Qigong in Long Beach
Tai Chi & Qigong in Long Beach
Sharing Energy
Sharing Energy

Welcome Spring Equinox!

I don’t know about you but winter always seems like it will never end in the U.S. northeast! We had a few warm teaser days with temperatures in the 50’s, 60’s and even 70’s only for it to drop back down to frigid teens and 20’s with snowstorms and Nor’easters looming.

March 20, 2017 at 6:29 a.m. marked the beginning of Spring Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. Equinox means the days and nights are approximately equal in relation to the amount of sunlight we receive.

According to the Chinese, the Spring Equinox has many connotations. With the transition from winter to spring many things happen to the body physically, spiritually and emotionally that one should be aware.

Spring is associated with the element of wood and the organs are the liver and gall bladder. Wood represents new growth, rebirth, and new beginnings such as you have with perennial plants that start to peek through the ground or buds showing on the trees. Their growth slowly emerges as the climate continues to warm. Birds start chirping and animals and insects that hibernated for the winter months awaken. Individuals should think of this as a time to reawaken the spirit with invigorating exercises and lighter meals. An individual’s emotions should cultivate flexibility and kindness and tone down anger and frustration.

The liver (Yin organ) is responsible for cleansing the blood circulating throughout the body. Spiritually it has the important job of directing Chi throughout the body and restoring peace and balance. So, it is important to take good care of your liver and eat foods that compliment its actions. The gall bladder (Yang organ) assists in the digestion of fats through the production of bile.

Mindful eating: Detoxify your liver by adding lemon to water and drinks, in salad dressings or it add directly onto foods. Concentrate on eating antioxidant rich foods such leafy greens – kale, collard greens, swiss chard, spinach as well as all varieties of lettuce. Foods in the spring should be sautéed, stir fried or grilled instead of baking or slow cooking like it is done in the winter months.

Spiritual practice: Practice qigong exercises that target the liver. Spring emphasizes the Tai Chi postures “split” or Lieh of the eight energies for the gall bladder or “retreat” of the Five Steps.

As we come out of the Yin winter months and into spring we should get out and enjoy nature and the surroundings. Focus your practice outdoors and absorb the many wonders of nature.

 

Wuji (Wu Chi) — Always

Wuji (or Wu Chi) is a classical Tai Chi posture known in most styles of Tai Chi Chuan. The literal translation means “nothing, nothingness, or empty” for Wu and “limits, end, extreme boundary” for “chi or ji (the “chi” is the same life force of “chi” but it has a different connotation). The two words used together mean emptiness in any movement, thought or activity; “nothing separates me from my surroundings” as our Sifu told us many times. Some people refer to Wuji as the quiet time before a form starts and after the form ends. It is the ultimate state of relaxation.     Standing in a meditative state of mind with the body properly aligned can help increase chi circulation and open up energy channels. Max Yan and Jude Smallwood say “Taiji comes from Wuji and returns to Wuji and is represented by the center circle within the large circle of the Tai Chi symbol. (see below).

Mark Sabin says “In movement Wuji flows, the unifying essence of Taiji. Throughout the set it continues, enduring and constant as changes course through the body. And in stillness again Wuji remains, the posture that lasts after all intention subsides utterly neutral and utterly present. Despite its seeming simplicity refining Wuji proves to be an evasive and difficult accomplishment.” Practicing Zhan Zhuang (“Standing Like a Tree” or “Standing Post”) incorporates the very essence of Wuji through body-mind connection while standing in a meditative posture.

Wuji Posture: Below is a detailed illustration of the physical aspects of the Tai Chi Wuji posture, coinciding with the classic principles of Tai Chi Chuan.

Head: Hold head erect as if suspended vertically from the baihui point (top of the crown); the neck is relaxed.
Shoulders, elbows and hands: Drop the shoulders and the elbows point downward, hands are relaxed at the sides, slightly engaged with some energy, making sure they aren’t limp; you should feel as if a balloon can be place under your arms without breaking it.
Chest: Open and slightly collapsed.

Knees and hips: Knees are slightly bent and pushed out; hips are relaxed, with the sensation of pushing downward into the floor with no tension; tailbone is tucked in.
Feet: Shoulder width apart.
Back: Spine should be vertical, with little of the “S” curve showing, holding no tension.
Waist: Soft and supple and able to move freely.
Tongue: Slightly touching the soft palate on the roof of your mouth.
Mind: Clear of any extraneous thoughts and staying in the moment, concentrate on sinking the breathing into the Tan Tien; eyes gaze straight ahead, not focusing on anything. Be aware of any tension or discomfort in parts of your body. Acknowledge it and make small adjustments to improve the comfort of the posture.
Breathing: Take long, slow breaths and concentrate on breathing through the Tan Tien in the lower abdomen. Think of the breath as “slow, long, even, narrow, and deep” ; count your breaths to keep your mind focused on your breathing. The deep breathing will aid in relaxation.

The principles of Wuji are applied when practicing Zhan Zhuang, as is shown in the “Hugging the Tree” posture.

The Wuji posture is an important foundation of your Tai Chi practice. Adding standing meditation 10-20 minutes a day will not only enhance your rooting in Tai Chi forms, but also increase chi flow in the body. Contemplating a Wuji posture during your busy life can also help you relax your mind and body.

 

What-Basics Again?

“Groan, not a class on basics again? I want to work on forms!” thought the brown sash student.

This may be a familiar thought to some students in any martial arts class. I am guilty myself – as I went up in rank all I thought  was important was to do our lovely open hand and weapons forms. That is only part of the picture. Working on basics is just as important as working on forms along with two person training like push hands and applications.

Little did I realize at the time that basic postures are the foundation of all Tai Chi forms and they need to be reviewed constantly by an instructor. Basic postures, basic stances, basic movements are like second nature to the advanced student but for a beginner and intermediate student they are still learning. And guess who they watch when they can’t see the teacher? You, the advanced student! That’s why your basics have to be impeccably executed!

In your private practice take inventory of each posture, keeping the Ten Essential Points of Tai Chi in mind:

  • Where are my feet? Is my back heel pushed out in a forward stance?
  • Is my weight distributed correctly?
  • Am I rooted to the ground? Am I “light on top and heavy on the bottom?”
  • Is my head held up high?
  • Are my shoulders relaxed and tailbone tucked in?

These questions and more should be going through your mind as you do Part the Wild Horses Mane, White Crane Spreads Its Wings, Brush Knee and Push, and the list goes on.

So the next time your Sifu starts running through basic postures and forms, embrace the opportunity to not only help yourself but also your classmates improve their forms.

 

Forward Stance

  • Head and torso held high
  • 60/40% distribution with most weight on the front leg
  • Your front knee is bent; you should be able to see your toes
  • Hips are squared forward
  • Shoulders are relaxed, chest is slightly concaved (hollowed)

Tai Chi forward stance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back Stance

  • Head and torso held high
  • 60/40% distribution with most on the back leg
  • Hips are squared forward
  • Shoulders are relaxed, chest is slightly concaved (hollowed)

Tai Chi back stance

Happy Winter Solstice

Winter officially started on December 21, 2016 in the Northern Hemisphere at 5:44 a.m. EST. It is the shortest day and longest night of the year. It’s the time of year when people want to spend more time indoors to avoid storms and colder temperatures. With reduced sunshine many people feel deprived of the sunlight and can go into a depression. That is one good reason to practice Qigong during these long, cold months, to help replenish depleted energy, move stagnant qi, and quiet overactive qi.

The element of winter is water (the most Yin of the five elements) and is associated with the kidneys and bladder. It is important to keep the neck, feet, and lower back areas covered and warm to prevent the cold from entering your body.

The kidneys are multifunctional including:

  •  Acting as a filter in the body.
  • Producing urine and sending it to the bladder.
  • Releasing and retaining water.
  • Removing wastes from the blood.
  • In TCM it storing the energy that goes to your cells.

There are many Qigong forms to choose from; make certain the form stimulates the kidneys with some massaging and, if possible, targets the kidney and bladder meridians.

Your diet should change in the winter months as well. According to the Daoist Monk, Zhou Xuan Yun (www.daoistgate.com) , the food you eat has an affect on your body’s ability to stay balanced and combat illness during seasonal changes. He also recommends staying indoors to conserve Yang energy.

Your winter diet should consist of:

  • Warming food: chicken, coriander, fennel, meats.
  • Herbs to remove cold: garlic, onions, black pepper, ginger.
  • Foods that strengthen the kidneys: sweet potato, kidney beans, millet.
  • More root vegetables such as carrots, root squashes (acorn, butternut, delicate, spaghetti, etc.), beets, parsnips, celeriac (celery root).

You should eat less of or avoid:

  • Foods with salt, which slows blood circulation and increases fluid retention.
  • Raw foods, which cool the body; salads are OK if eaten in the afternoon after the body has had a chance to warm up.
  • Caffeine, which is hard on the kidneys (try tea or decaf. instead).
  • Spicy foods, they cause sweating which releases heat from the body.

If you practice these simple dietary and exercises on a regular basis or as the seasons change you will be rewarded with good health and increased awareness of your body.

Tai Chi Chuan and Qigong is For Everyone

People these days take Tai Chi for many reasons but most people take it because of the positive health benefits:

– Improves flexibility
– Increases blood circulation, muscle strength and physical stamina
– Promotes relaxation
– Has been known to lower blood pressure
– Decreases the risk of falling by achieving better balance

And much more!

People with MS and Parkinson’s reap these benefits but it also has a more profound affect on them because of their disease.

With regular practice the meditative qualities of Tai Chi and Qigong can help reduce depression, as shown in the published study in August 2014 of BMC Neurology. The National MS Society recommends meditation for MS patients. Meditation helps relax the mind, creating a spiritual euphoria for some people. Relaxing the mind sends signals to the muscles to relax as well, which is so important for these individuals since they tend to have tight, spastic muscles.

Let’s talk about how it can improve balance. The constant shifting of weight from one leg to the other or one side to another for those sitting, and keeping the head erect generally over time improves a person’s balance. That’s good for the general population. Because MS affects people in different ways–some are mobile but have weakness in one side of their body or in certain limbs; some can stand and walk without assistive devices; some use walkers and can manage standing for short periods of time; and there are those who have little control of their movements and are in wheelchairs. Holding the head erect and keeping a straight spine in Wu Chi position is a struggle. Tai Chi can still work for all of these situations – with adjustments to the movements. Over time Tai Chi and Qigong can have positive affects on balance whether sitting or standing, strengthen limbs and increase endurance of holding postures and, of course, mental stability, from meditation.

For me personally, for now I am completely mobile and only use a small device to assist in walking. I practice daily and have recently started standing meditation (Zhan Zhang). Believe it or not the standing meditation alone helps improve the balance but I’ll leave that for a future posting.

Continue to practice the forms you know and over time you will see a difference physically, mentally and emotionally.

Pam Dye-brush knee and push
Pam doing Yang style brush knee and push

MS and Tai Chi Chuan

My focus on this blog will be my personal experiences dealing with MS and the impact of daily practices of Tai Chi Chaun on my physical and mental capacities. I’ve always said to people that Tai Chi Chuan is “my medicine”. I have PPMS (Primary Progressive MS) which means I probably won’t have any relapses (which is good) but my progression of the disease will continue downhill (which is not good).
I take Baclofen to help with spasticity and Ampyra® to help me with my walking. My daily practice of Tai Chi helps with not only with my balance and rooting but it’s meditative qualities keep me stay relaxed and energized throughout each day.

For much of my adult life I have been physically active: I’ve played tennis and squash, always swimming, biked on long tours, and even did a handful of road races (I hated running), some triathlons and biathlons and, of course, was into the martial arts. I took up Kung Fu in my undergraduate years and got pretty good at it and continued on after graduating and moving to a small town in West Virginia for my first teaching job. I stayed there for two years and moved back to New York and tried to find a comparable Kung Fu style and school but gave up. I continued the other physical activities but they were not as fulfilling as taking Kung Fu. It wasn’t until after I had shoulder surgery in 2001 that I took a Tai Chi Chuan class with Grand Master J. Teasley, got hooked, and never looked back.

During the time after 2002 the symptoms started: weakness in the legs, tripping, fatigue, and numbness in my left leg and arm . I had countless MRI’s of the spine and hips, visited the orthopedists and physical therapists regularly and even had three epidural procedures but no one knew what was wrong with me. I knew something wasn’t right when my legs felt like lead weights and could barely do a kick higher than knee height. It wasn’t until the summer of 2010 that a neurologist ordered an MRI of my brain with contrast. I thought “that was weird and scary-my brain?? Is it a tumor?” Nonetheless, he was able to diagnose that I had MS and I was relieved-finally an answer!

I continued practicing Tai Chi in spite of the diagnosis. Little did I know that this would be the best thing for me. There are no platform drugs for Primary Progressive MS-it is a slow, decline in the condition. Sure, my walking has gotten progressively worse over the years with foot drop but that hasn’t stopped me. I took a bad fall in 2008, which required 25 stitches in my bottom lip and chin, not knowing at the time that MS caused the fall.

Today, I continue my Tai Chi, knowing it will keep me happy and mentally centered. I am happy to share what I have learned with others and want to especially help others with MS and those with physical disabilities.