I was introduced to tai chi at Stella Maris Retreat and Renewal Center on Skaneateles Lake. As we attempted to match the instructor’s slow, deliberate movements, the floor-to-ceiling windows revealed the motion of waves on the lake and ever-changing cloud formations. During the class, we made our own formations, shifting our weight from one foot to another with a contemplative mindset, aware of our breathing, moving as a group and as individuals. The health benefits of tai chi are widely accepted but to really understand how it feels and what it can do for you, it helps to take a class.
“Tai chi is a moving meditation that teaches us to stay focused, calm and patient with oneself,” says Carol Anne Gallagher, tai chi instructor in Skaneateles and member of the Taoist Tai Chi Society Syracuse Branch. “When one is practicing tai chi, the demands of the day are set aside.”
Originally developed in China for self-defense, tai chi can be used for stress reduction, to improve balance and flexibility, to help with a wide variety of health issues, and simply to feel calm and dynamic at the same time. According to the Mayo Clinic, tai chi is a noncompetitive, self-paced system of gentle physical exercise and stretching.
To do tai chi, you perform a series of postures or movements in a slow, graceful manner. Each posture flows into the next without pause, ensuring that your body is in constant motion. Tai chi emphasizes technique over strength. Inexpensive, it requires no special equipment and can be done indoors or out, either alone or in a group, and can be enjoyed by all ages.
Research suggests that tai chi may help manage stress, reduce anxiety and depression, improve balance, flexibility and muscle strength, improve sleep quality, lower blood pressure, relieve chronic pain, increase energy, endurance and agility, and improve overall feelings of well-being.
“Balance is a huge part of what we do in tai chi as we are constantly shifting our weight,” explains Gallagher. “This process of consciously moving our center of gravity slowly from one foot to the other teaches the awareness needed to stay balanced. The moves are actually designed to stretch the tendons and muscles of the body, to keep them supple and strong, which aids flexibility. When we start to pay attention to how we do the moves, we usually discover that we are doing more than what is necessary and this is a real learning curve that actually less is better.”
As a weight-bearing exercise, tai chi affects the muscular and skeletal systems. “Our bodies are designed to move both inside and out,” says Gallagher. “The Eastern way of looking at health is from a perspective of life energy and the ability to move it freely throughout the body. They consider ill-health as a blockage of this energy. So when we practice our tai chi, we are affecting the circulation of energy.”
For those with arthritis, tai chi can provide a very appropriate, beneficial exercise option. Genoa Wilson, program manager for the Upstate New York Chapter of the Arthritis Foundation, explains how it started. “The Arthritis Foundation’s tai chi program is based on sun-style tai chi, which lends itself to those with arthritis as the stances aren’t as low thus protecting the joints.
“Tai chi is wonderful for improving joint mobility, strengthening the muscles that support the joints, improving balance and body awareness,” Wilson continues. “Because the breathing is slowed and deepened, there is an increase in tissue oxygenation and slowing the brain waves, hence the relaxation response.”
She says that when you are thinking about where your arms go, where your feet go, where you are looking, all the while incorporating the breathing, it flexes the mind. “Plus it can actually be a form of self-expression.”
Wilson adds, “One really interesting aspect of tai chi is that you keep building on a series of movements, adding a new movement each week until you have a wealth of material that keeps unfolding and that you can keep adding on to. And that’s where it starts to have a level of interest as a form of self-expression—as an art form.”
Strengthening and stretching the ligaments around the joints takes pressure off the joints affected by the arthritis, thus easing the pain. Tai chi allows for gentle movement so that people affected by arthritis are able to keep moving so that their joints get the exercise they need.
Other health issues can be helped by tai chi as well. Gallagher recalls a tai chi student with Parkinson’s disease who noticed fewer tremors while doing the moves, more upright stature and eventually more confidence in his gait. And a student who had a second knee replacement surgery reported that the difference in his recovery the second time was “unbelievable” due to his practice of tai chi. Many students report enjoying less pain in their joints and better range of movement.
Starting Sept. 24, the Arthritis Foundation Tai Chi Program is offered Mondays from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. through HealthLink, 6333 Route 298, near East Syracuse’s Carrier Circle. Call 464-8668 for information. Classes are also available at the Fayetteville Senior Center, 584 E. Genesee St., Fayetteville, Tuesdays from 3 to 4 p.m., and at the Manlius Senior Center, 1 Arkie Albanese Ave., Manlius, Wednesdays, 2 to 3 p.m. For more information, call the Arthritis Foundation at 637-3568. Although tai chi is generally safe, consider talking with your doctor before starting a new program.
Other local classes are available through the Syracuse branch of the Taoist Tai Chi Society. Call 476-5760 for classes in Syracuse and Cazenovia, and Carol Anne Gallagher at 345-4648 for classes in Skaneateles, or email email@example.com for more information.
Marnie Blount-Gowan is a member of the Crouse Hospital Integrative Health Alliance, Mind Body Health instructor and editor of Realewell.com.