Blogging with Parkinson's

A personal perspective on Young Onset Parkinson's

Alternative ways of moving, part 2: Tai Chi

4 Comments

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.

On a less martial note, Tai Chi is supposed to be incredibly beneficial to the health. The Wikipedia article on Tai Chi has a whole section on health benefits, which includes the following:

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.

The folks over at www.martialtaichi.co.uk are slightly sceptical:

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.

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4 thoughts on “Alternative ways of moving, part 2: Tai Chi

  1. It seems obvious to me that any system of exercise which relies or focuses on balance would be beneficial to the sufferer of PD. It’s a question of strengthening the body in ways which make balance and movement more automatic. The degeneration of the brain’s ability to efficiently instruct the body how to move will continue, but the body will compensate. This is similar to the strangeness I noticed in my post Whole lot of shaking … not going on (http://wp.me/p16t7v-ea).

    Martial arts all work with balance, spatial awareness, and co-ordination – three of the great PD issues. Indeed, one of the reasons I eventually sought diagnosis was the loss of facility in my left hand while sparring …

    The real problem is when people suggest it can cure or reverse PD. This is plainly nonsense, but as therapy, it can certainly help to combat some of the symptoms. As to which art you choose … well, everyone believes their particular discipline is the best, but when it comes to a fight between two equally competent fighters, but trained in different disciplines, it’s the one with the greatest will who prevails. I’m willing to bet that the same is true of PD. Roll over and it’ll kick you where it hurts.

    But this isn’t to say one should fight the disease – you’ll lose. This is just to say that like any sensible fighter, you don’t attack your opponent’s strengths, and you avoid their attacks as much as possible, concentrating on staying on your feet as long as possible. If you’re lucky, help will arrive.

    So do whatever you find works, or whatever makes sense.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to comment, Pete.

    It’s true that there are many potential therapeutic exercise systems for PD – and that none of them are cures. Most of the more popular ones seem to involve a certain refinement or retraining of bodily movement, hence the title of the post (“Alternative ways of moving…”).

    I think that, really, it is a matter of finding the one that works for the individual. I imagine that ballet or yoga may not appeal to some men (certainly the yoga class I attend is largely testosterone-free; one chap turned up once or twice with his wife). Martial arts have a different image and a differentraison d’être; they may, consequently, be a more appealing option for a bloke in the early stages of Parkinson’s. As it happens, I find the idea quite appealing, too – there’s a self-defence element, there’s the idea that you’re tapping into an ancient tradition, and there’s the feeling that it’s more than ‘just’ exercise (I have always been rather averse to exercise for its own sake; you are unlikely to catch me at an aerobics class, say).

    I contacted the folks behind http://www.martialtaichi.co.uk (it seemed only fair after I’d quoted them), and had a lovely e-mail in return in which they suggested that pilates might also be of interest.

  3. More interest in tai chi as a therapy for Parkinson’s at the Daily Reveille.

  4. Yet more positive results for tai chi as a therapy for Parkinson’s are reported on the American Parkinson’s Disease Foundation site (again). A scientific paper has been published regarding tai chi vs. other exercise regimes (“stretching” is mentioned). Tai chi comes out top.

    My post on the subject:
    https://bloggingwithparkinsons.wordpress.com/2012/02/11/tai-chi-comes-out-tops-as-parkie-exercise/

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