I recently came across this post on the Parkinson Research Foundation’s Web site. It describes how the Chinese martial art Tai Chi (properly known as T’ai Chi Ch’uan or Taijiquan) can help people with Parkinson’s.
Now, I hadn’t heard that Tai Chi might be of use as a therapy for Parkinson’s before, but it seems to be well known in some circles (some of these circles may be centred on the United States – or it may just be that most of the online discussion is coming from that great nation). However, from what I have read, it sounds promising.
In the post noted above, Sherri Woodbridge relays the following:
According to Bill Douglas of World Tai Chi and Qigong Day, “Tai Chi movements rotate the human body in about 95% of the ways the body can move, when a long form is practiced. This is far beyond what other exercise offers […] For Parkinson’s sufferers, or anyone for that matter, this would indicate that by ‘using’ 95% of the body’s possible motion several times a week, the possibility of ‘losing’ the ability to do so diminishes accordingly.”
Douglas claims that the next best exercise, in terms of using the body’s potential movements, is swimming. He doesn’t mention yoga, which I imagine might come close. In fact, it seems to me (as someone who has dabbled in yoga but is only just finding out about Tai Chi), that Tai Chi could almost be a martial extension of yoga. They come from different continents, and have different purposes (yoga is primarily a peaceful art), but there do seem to be many similarities; each has a holistic approach and emphasises flexibility, balance, core strength and self awareness. It has been suggested to me that Tai Chi is “less stationary”, and I think it is also more externally aware.
Anyway, I digress.
Douglas also goes on to say that, “[…] One obvious reason [that everyone with Parkinson’s should be doing Tai Chi] is that Tai Chi is the most powerful balance and coordination enhancing exercise known. In many studies at major universities Tai Chi was found to be TWICE as effective in reducing falls as the other balance enhancing exercises being studied.”
Sherri goes on to talk about how the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center are also promoting Tai Chi,
[…] because it teaches you to also be aware of your body and how it’s moving, allowing more focus in what’s happening with your body in order to prevent a fall.
So what does Tai Chi involve? It’s a martial art, so it was developed to improve fighting skills. Its name, according to the Web site www.martialtaichi.co.uk, means “Greatest Extremes Boxing”:
The Taijiquan practitioner practices movements that are greatly differentiated, that is to say – extremely slow and extremely fast, extremely soft and extremely hard. At times the Taji fighter is very aggressive, at other times very passive; at times initiating, at other times responsive; at times sticky and persistent, at other times slippery and evasive. Another strong contrast is that sometimes the art focuses on differentiation and extremity and at other times harmonisation and balance. The art develops your ability to overcome any attacker or obstacle by learning how to maximise your own strength efficiency, whilst using skill and intelligence to make the foe or obstacle easier to control.
So, it’s an art of contrasts, of unpredictability, of skill and subtlety. It requires discipline and awareness, both of the self and of the situation. It certainly sounds like something to aspire to.
Researchers have found that intensive tai chi practice shows some favo[u]rable effects on the promotion of balance control, flexibility, cardiovascular fitness, and has shown to reduce the risk of falls in both healthy elderly patients, and those [suffering from] Parkinson’s […]. Tai chi’s gentle, low impact movements burn more calories than surfing and nearly as many as downhill skiing.
These days, Tai Chi is almost exclusively known for its proclaimed health benefits. This is unfortunate, as when practiced solely for health, the art loses its health benefits […]
The art as it is popularly practiced has become little more than a form of extremely slow and gentle exercise for the elderly and infirm. While health for the elderly is in itself no bad thing, the fact remains that the exercise they practice is not Tai Chi at all. Popular, purely slow-moving and completely abstract “Tai Chi” is a very far cry from the powerful and highly acclaimed warrior art of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. […] One has to ask – wouldn’t any kind of gentle, slow-motion exercise achieve the same results?
So are there any health benefits with Real Martial Tai Chi™?
Yes – the same as with any other martial art. Practicing fully martial Taijiquan improves your balance, strength, endurance, lung capacity and breath control. Like any activity, it uses your muscles, which improves circulation and stimulates the lymphatic system – this can help your immune system to function more effectively.
As a fully functional martial art that involves combative speeds and physical contact, Martial Tai Chi™ develops reflexes, mental focus, co-ordination and physical awareness. What is slightly different from some other kinds of martial training is that Taiji also makes you focus on slow detailed movements, as well as fast, powerful ones. The practitioner therefore gets a more holistic kind of physical and mental workout than when performing activities that focus on speed and exertion alone. Skill is emphasised over brute strength and athleticism.
As a fully functional branch of martial science, Martial Tai Chi™ also has an element of intellectual, strategic, philosphical and even moral development. How much more beneficial is that to just standing and waving your arms about?
Okay, so Tai Chi is potentially very beneficial, but you have to work at it, and you have to take the full extent of the regime on, not just the slow bits. That sounds reasonable. Hard work, but reasonable.
I’ve entertained the idea of learning a martial art before. Back then, my primary reasons were based on the idea of self defense (fortunately, I have never been in a situation where I might have required these skills). I never quite got around to it… nor, indeed, did I ever do those car maintenance classes I was thinking of.