Friday, June 12, 2015

The magic of tai chi

I began taking tai chi in September of 2014 through a Tai Chi for Arthritis program at my local senior center. Just having turned 55, I was eligible for membership. Woo hoo! My main reason for joining the center was to learn tai chi, which I had been fascinated with after seeing it on TV and in movies. The slow, graceful choreography of the moves appealed to me and I have read and heard much about tai chi’s many health benefits.

Although I had done much core and balance work previously, I soon began to feel even greater strength and stability. The mind-body aspect only enhanced what I had developed in yoga and Pilates in recent years. And something more, I began to sleep more deeply as I had heard I would.

Wanting to share this with my group exercise students I took Tai Chi for Arthritis instructor training in Memphis and began teaching tai chi classes at Dawson Memorial Family Recreation Center in Homewood, Ala., and several area senior facilities. It’s rewarding to see others benefit from the gentle and health-producing martial art. Plus it has deepened my own tai chi practice.

Dr. Paul Lam, an Australian physician, developed the Tai Chi for Health programs - including Tai Chi for Arthritis - incorporating up-to-date medical knowledge a number of years ago. These programs are proven by medical studies to improve health. Both the CDC and Arthritis Foundation recommend the Tai Chi for Arthritis program. I was fortunate to be able to follow up my initial Tai Chi for Arthritis training with an intensive in-depth tai chi workshop led by Dr. Lam in Cartersville, Ga. in Sept. 2015.

If you have any interest in learning tai chi, please try it. And if you don’t have access to classes
please visit Dr. Lam’s Tai Chi for Health Institute website at where you can order instructional tai chi DVDs.

Here are a few basics for beginning your tai chi practice:

CULTIVATE THE HABIT OF TAKING SLOW, DEEP BREATHS - The more slowly and deeply you breathe the more relaxed you will feel. Deep breathing is abdominal, meaning that your diaphragm contracts fully and creates a vacuum to more fully fill the lungs with air. When you breathe in deeply your belly will naturally bulge out like a baby or opera singer. On the exhale the belly will flatten.

CHECK IN WITH YOUR POSTURE PERIODICALLY. Hold yourself up so you can breathe freely; Lifting the rib cage, elongating the spine, shoulders up and back, chin parallel to the floor, balancing the head above the body. Gently stretch out your joints.

MOVE SLOWLY, SMOOTHLY AND CONSISTANTLY AS IF THROUGH GENTLE RESISTANCE, SUCH AS IN WATER. Slow down your pace and gently control your movement by becoming mindful of it and your breath. By relaxing and patiently going through the exercises at whatever your level or ability you will gain strength and improve your balance. You will also develop greater inner calm and improve your sleeping patterns. Don’t worry about doing it “exactly right.” Just move in your range of comfort. Tai chi is a process and works its magic as we practice it, however imperfectly.

MINDFULLY SHIFT YOUR WEIGHT AS YOU WALK IN TAI CHI. Slowly shifting our weight to one leg and then sinking into that foot before lifting our other foot and stepping out (then slowly transferring our weight to that foot) develops core strength as well as leg strength. It also challenges our inner balance control system and improves our stability over time.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Strong or flexible?

When it comes to being strong or flexible, which is best for keeping your muscles and tendons healthy?

Okay, it's a trick question as it is best to be both. Muscle-bound weight lifters can lose range of motion and become so stiff they walk funny. Ultra-flexible yoginis can injure themselves because of too much muscle and tendon laxity and little strength.

Weak and/or tight muscles – often associated with poor posture and body mechanics - can lead to muscle spasms and painful trigger points that can only temporarily be relieved by massage. The underlying problem needs to be addressed.

Another problem weak and tight muscles - as well as muscle strength and flexibility imbalances - can lead to or worsen is osteoarthritis. Healthy (strong and flexible) muscles and tendons help keep joints working properly. A balanced exercise routine to avoid repetitive use and injury of the joints is also important.

Any time you participate in strength training, please stretch afterwards. Resistance training tightens the muscles and over time can lead to loss of range of motion. Also, when you can, stretch after walking or other cardio.

Yoga and/or pilates can improve your flexibility overall. After doing my fitness turnaround several years ago, the increase in my range of motion, just through a bit of yoga and additional stretching, has me feeling 20 years or younger than my actual age.
For do-it-yourselfers: As I have mentioned before, an excellent book on stretching is "Stretching" by Bob Anderson. It's thoroughly illustrated and includes stretches targeting various sports and activities. There are numerous books on strength training. The American Council of Exercise website offers a wealth of information on balancing strength and stretch.

No matter how you approach it, just remember the archer’s bow. Seek to be both strong and flexible.