Tai chi and alcohol dependency

Sometime ago, a fellow contacted me to learn some tai chi. I showed him some things, but he had difficulty focusing. I knew he drank too much and had for a long time. Too long.

He was hitting 50 years and had a physically demanding job. People were not taking him seriously because he was a drunkard. His uphill struggle intensified, because of that kind of lack of support. That became another obstacle in his life. Lonely as life can be, it really became lonelier for him and less fulfilling. He was in a rut. Things he had always done weren’t working. If they ever did. He didn’t know how to get out of it. 

But you can. It’s the same process as when you initially stepped onto that path. You did it to address a problem and it worked for you. Ultimately, you have a different challenge now. It’s time for a new rut. If you figure out you are in a rut you are doing better already. At least you are aware if something that may lead to escape. 

The challenge is compounded, however, because you have depleted your energy. It is easy to expend excess energy that it takes to drink too much, and beat up the body when you are younger. But as you age and deplete, it is more difficult to rebound.

This is where tai chi comes in. Developing a practice helps you to focus your attention on specific goals and achievements. Simple as they are they are powerful. Energy builds back as a result. You may not get it all back, but you learn to do more with you have to work with. A tai chi practice helps you to see your path out of the rut.


Tai chi and resilience 

A tai chi practice might not prevent certain illness,
but it could make you more resilient if you do get sick.

On February 1, my younger brother suffered sudden cardiac arrest and passed away. It stunned everyone who knew him. No one was aware of any outward sign of the condition of his health.

Coincidently, my heart began to fail two years ago just this month. On March 6 a cardiologist inserted a stent in the left descending artery of my heart, which was 95% blocked with plaque. They call this large artery the “widowmaker” due to sudden deaths commonly associated with it. 

My brother died of what might have happened to me if I had not being practicing tai chi. I used to think that tai chi could, or would, prevent these kinds of afflictions if you practiced enough. I’ve learned differently, but I think my tai chi practice did make my body more sensitive to changes and more resilient, allowing me to rebound back to health more readily.

A tai chi practice might achieve certain quality of life goals, such as improved circulation, better balance, even better memory. The list is long. This in turn would help you prevent illness, presumably. Maybe I never really believed, in the back of mind, it could prevent cancer, stroke or heart attack. But so many promotions of tai chi seem to suggest that. Ironically, my teacher once said that if you do qigong enough you wouldn’t die of stroke. “Might die of cancer, but not stroke,” he said.

In my case, something had being going wrong for a few weeks. I was shoveling snow when a burning sensation in my chest forced me to stop shoveling. For two weeks I felt the pain off and on until I was able to take a stress test, which is to walk on a treadmill at an increasing pace for at least 10 minutes. I was unable to. I was shunted into surgery three days later for stent insertion, a procedure they call an angioplasty.

Cardiologists now tell me I have coronary artery disease, or CAD. Twenty years of fairly intensive tai chi practice didn’t prevent it. Even before the so-called “event,” I had seen tai chi masters die rather young. Long before I entered into the tai chi world I assumed that “Chinese masters” lived very long lives because they lived wisely and practiced diligently. But once I had been practicing and meeting the “masters,” I found that many live only as long as average people. One of my early teachers died before age 80 of what I heard was stomach cancer. Another died of a brain tumor. He was not much older than I.

Whatever skills and knowledge we acquire through diligent practice from exceptional teachers, we ultimately do not overcome the conditions of our environments. Polluted air and water, and whatever environmentally unsound features we live in.

Lifestyle probably made me vulnerable to heart failure. Like not brushing your teeth when you are young leads to bad teeth and gums later in life, failing to follow the guidelines of good eating and exercise earlier in life can easily lead to compromised health in older years.

Cardiologists tell me that my body produces cholesterol excessively, which contributes to CAD. It’s genetic, they say. Of course, a tai chi advocate would resist that conclusion. Anything is possible, right? Nevertheless, my body inherited an ability to over-produce bad cholesterol from my father. The evidence was when he suffered a heart attack at age 53 and died at age 67, the same age my heart started to fail. The same age my brother died suddenly.

Environment, lifestyle, genetics—my body became more resilient because I did tai chi. After the angioplasty, I went through the rehab program in a third of the time of most patients. Rehab has included medication, aerobic exercise (for me, hiking/walking/bicycling) and diet modifications. I continue tai chi and qigong practice, of course. It’s different now. I guess I will be in rehab for the rest of my life, which they tell me is shortened because of CAD. Maybe they are incorrect.

I credit my teachers with giving me information to help improve my health. One teacher focuses on martial training and the other more on health. They have lacked some insight into the deeper needs of my particular body, which is understandable. No one can know everything. Both, however, have exposed students to the internal energetic components of taijiquan, information vitally important to me in helping to build strength and resilience. I have focused heavily on internal energy awareness (life force) in the teaching I have done.

I learned enough from them and my own efforts to prevent a full heart attack. I was quite ill when I began my practice 23 years ago and I improved greatly. My skills grew and I began to feel stronger and more optimistic. Most importantly, I clearly built up a resiliency and a sensitivity that gave me the awareness to see that a problem was building. I was able to change course before it was too late. I credit that to taking action to learn tai chi.

I recently told a friend going through similar issues that anyone in the midst of rebounding from illness, such as heart failure, should resist inertia. Be flexible and changeable. It’s simple enough. The first thing is to move. Don’t just sit around. The second is to move in a different manner than you are accustomed to. Tai chi accomplishes this. Third, move from a different place. Go deeper. Move from your innermost being and from your deepest awareness. It will make you more resilient and possibly save your life.

The beginner always, curated

Perpetual learner, deliberate practice, repetition without repetition, intellectual humility, openness to new ways of learning. … They don’t mention taijiquan, but in fits the bill in this BBC article.

“How a ‘beginners mindset’ can help you learn anything”


Tai Chi: Habit Killer

The old cliche of “breaking a (bad) habit” has outworn it usefulness. Instead, focus on creating a new habit. A habit has been described as a “psychological loop,” which is like a self-perpetuating pattern. Create—learn new patterns, new habits, of movement doing tai chi. This creates potential to overcome obstacles to progress along the path of learning and change, and yes, maturing beyond entrenched, unwanted habits.

How tai chi can improve balance in aging persons

Our ability to walk and stand and move in all the ways that we do relies heavily on our sense of balance. For some time now research has been finding that tai chi can improve postural stability, especially as we age. Harvard University is particularly focused on such research, much of which is discussed in The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi (Wayne P, 2013).

For something that we take for granted for so much of our lives, the statistics can be a wake-up call.

  • Muscle strength decreases 20 to 40% between the ages of 20 and 70.
  • Ankle flexibility, which is critical for postural control, declines by 50% in women and 35% in men between the ages of 55 and 85.
  • Spinal flexibility is often the first thing to go, especially spinal extension (the ability to stand up straight). We have 50% less spinal extension after age 70 then we had in our 20s.

We don’t have to be “old” to see this progression. It actually starts in relatively early years of life.

As research findings show, it’s a no-brainer that tai chi improves balance. Tai chi practice does so by improving the conditions of aging reported above: improvements in muscle strength, particularly through changes in muscle use and control, joint flexibility in terms of range of motion and speed, spinal flexibility and extension, as well as alignment. Greater overall postural control is possible.

Since the day we stand and begin to walk, we rely on balance as we journey through life. I could tell in my own practice as I have aged that I started out in a particular state of balance and through practice progressed to where I am now. I am my own personal research project. I have seen the progression and can mark its passage in changes in my body and in the way I feel. I think every tai chi practitioner can say something similar if they practice long enough.

Lan Shou Quan powerstretching
Master Ye Xiao Long powerstretching in late 1990s in San Francisco at George Xu Summer Camp Training

Research also suggests that taking a 12-week course of two 90-minute tai chi classes per week can produce noticeable changes in your balance. I would say a number of other changes would be observable, as well. A sense of overall well-being, for example, might result; or a more relaxed feeling when in motion.

I would add that if you practice regularly for two years you would see rather amazing growth in your ability not only at doing tai chi form, for example, but at having cultivated a movement strategy for overcoming conditions, such as chronic pain. I have myself as a case study, but I know many who have stories to tell about overcoming ailments simply by sticking with their tai chi practice.

These positive strides from learning tai chi relate to balance resulting from addressing the functions of four systems in the body, as described by Dr. Wayne: musculoskeletal, visual, sensory, and cognitive. He dissects these into their components and by doing so makes it clearly evident how tai chi improves balance.

Tai chi is a practice of utilizing all of these systems with attention to how they are working in our minds and bodies. We become more adept at how we walk, stand, see, feel, breathe, and even hear merely by focusing on them in movement. Overtime we cultivate expertise through practice similarly to what we do as we grow up, but with a renewed emphasis.

Tai chi movements truly are the movements of life itself. We can transfer the specialized movements of tai chi to daily activities. Just the act of memorizing something new has significant benefits for brain function. And just the simple act of taking a walk can be a practice of tai chi, in addition to a healthy exercise. It’s nothing short of amazing for so many practitioners. I can say this because I’ve seen it and I’ve heard them say so.

We may not be able to completely eradicate the symptoms of aging, but maybe we could slow the decrease in muscle strength, or slow the lack of flexibility in the ankles and other joints. For me, it’s not a maybe, it’s a certainty. The catch is that you have to start and keep it up. The longer you wait the more catching up you have to do—but having less time in which to do it.

The good thing is it’s really never too late to start, especially if you have a knowledgeable and supportive teacher and a friendly group of fellow practitioners with which to practice.

We all have our own unique challenges to tackle in the quest to age more gracefully and with good health. This is something to keep in mind when beginning to learn tai chi movement. Hopefully, you will find a teacher who can help you through your particular situation.

The key is to see and feel progress which comes only after effort and time. Each us takes the time we need and makes the effort that we can and that sets your pace. I’m always confident that just about everyone can make progress and see the difference tai chi can make in their balance and other functions.


Paul Tim Richard shares perspectives on internal martial arts and the art of movement based on two decades of study. He has co-produced MastersFromChina.com instructional videos since 2002 and teaches fundamental principles of taijiquan and qigong in Colorado, USA.