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.

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Tai chi and getting some energy back

It is said that we are born with a finite amount of energy and that is all we have to make it through life. As life progresses that supply of energy is depleted through living: events, act, thoughts, points of view. It takes energy to live. Less of our original life force becomes available to us as we age. It becomes stuck, tucked away, or wasted upon others. We can get much of it back, however. If you knew this were possible, would you consider doing what it would take to get it back?

Integrating new movement to internalize it

Taiji is about moving differently. To move in a new way requires a fresh perspective. Start with gaining clarity of a habituated movement pattern. Habitual patterns are most difficult to see because they become “transparent” or invisible to us over time. So train your mind’s ability to focus and concentrate on the move. The eventual discovery of a new way to move will come automatically as a result of the effort. Aim to internalize new movement so it becomes integrated into the whole as a beneficial contribution.

Tai Chi can help address pain and “clenching.” But how? Here’s one thought for practice.

I sometimes see pain as a sign of the body or brain talking to you, trying to get your attention, telling you to listen. If you have a painful joint or muscle, it might hurt because it’s doing more than its share of the body’s workload. It’s doing the work of other joints or muscles. One or more of these other parts might be holding back, either reacting to tension or stress, or creating tension and stress.

I trace some of this back to the influence of emotion or knowledge. Often it’s low-level, under the radar sort of fear. Sometimes its a lack of clarity on how to respond to some force that you don’t quite understand enough about in order to act on.

I’ve heard of one reaction called “clenching,” a subconscious attempt to control, which has the opposite effect: no control, or perhaps more accurately, causing undue control of other parts of the body by hindering their movement, and reducing their contribution to the movement of the whole.

In other words, trying to hold back the inevitable: movement. If and when you discover yourself doing this kind of thing, tell yourself to listen in a different way than you’re accustomed to:

“Change View. Shift. Release.”

Flow with the compelling force of the mind and body and spirit that is always present whatever we may, or may not, be doing consciously or unconsciously. Move and adapt with the ever-fluctuating force of life.

What I like about single basic moves in tai chi practice

Tai chi basics, including “single basic moves” are employed to train for specific objectives, such as loosening, relaxing and strengthening joints, ligaments and tendons, all of which are exclusive offerings of the tai chi exercise system.

What I like about single basic moves is they give you something to do on your own. A good solo practice can be developed with single basics. I wrote before about the two kinds of memory you come across in practice: the learning a sequence of moves kind and remembering a deeper feeling of the movement. The first helps to develop the external appearance of movement and the latter develops the internal.

Doing a single move repeatedly is simpler than remembering long sequences of postures and transitions. But more than that, it allows you to narrow your focus to the internal which takes more concentration. Not that it needs that much, just that we don’t typically ever focus on that. We’re out of touch and out of practice with this learning path.

Do single basics and relax

Repeating a single move simplifies the process of moving. You have less to remember. You can relax and pay more attention to the feeling of the movement and not worry so much about what comes next, which you tend to do in remembering form sequences. Of course, sequence learning is part of the overall learning. Often that’s all that is taught to beginners. Many of us remain beginners for years, in that case, because there is practically an infinite number of postures and transitions to learn. And knowing lots of sequences doesn’t necessarily lead to a well-rounded knowledge base. We often lack knowledge of internal practices.

A meaning of internal

Different people will define internal in different ways according to their experience. Internal can be described in many ways depending on the context and the particular movements you’re engaging. In the context of this post’s topic, I describe it as narrowing focus down to the more intricate, or deeper, levels of movement. This practice always leads to the most minute motion deep in your whole being, not just your body. The body is where you point your attention to in the beginning of your practice. But you also have your mind, your “spirit” or “shen,’ and your “Qi,” or energy.

At some point a regular, sincere practice of focusing attention to deeper levels triggers changes in the quality of your movements. Your move may become bigger or more power may come with it. It’s exponential, as in what I’ve heard my teacher, George Xu, say often “minimum effort, maximum results.”

This idea defies what average people usually think. If your long-held thinking has grown static, shallow and relies on unexamined assumptions you’ll have difficulty picking up on the more intrinsic details of taijiquan. Understanding this boils down to being free in your movement so that you will adjust to the constant flux of the energy of being alive. Let the qi move your body. Let the mind picture the move before you move at all. This might sound deep or even meaningless, but it fits with what I mean.

I’m simply referring to the “life force,” referred to in tai chi circles, which is what practitioners are trying to connect with. You’re not just learning moves and sets of moves. You’re learning how to be alive in the present moment. You’re learning how to feel the energy in any given moment.

Single basic moves can help bring you to that place in your practice. You become aware of something that you were not aware of before, or haven’t been for a long time. New feeling appears even when you’re not actually practicing anything at all—just going through daily life.

Qualities of Moving, or the “Flow”

You can focus on moving from a single point, but also on moving along a line—from feet to head and back, for example. It’s like traveling along a conduit of energy. This is a more intricate view of the “flow” you hear people talk about to describe the feeling of energy moving.

For many the movement is rather broad—still more wai dan (external field), then nei dan (internal field). Both views are accurate but they have different outcomes, and different motivations. Wai dan describes a less-informed and less-formed view, which happens to be broad in perspective. Most people begin with this mindset.

Nei dan is deeper, revealing much more of the total scope of practice that is possible. It is deeper, less superficial. Wherever you are in your learning process, progress happens by keeping it simple and seeking deeper awareness of what constitutes any move.

I think single basics is a great way to immerse yourself into this area of learning. You should be able to take greater advantage of the overall benefits of taiji that is being talked about so much these days, from research findings to testimonials from practitioners.

Repeat and refine

Although single basics are repetitive, they are not repetitious, so to speak. You repeat a pattern, intent on refining, not on repeating it exactly the same way as before. Change is the key. “Changeability” as Master Xu puts it.

How do you refine? Pick out a particular locus and focus your attention on how you move there. Focus on the move itself and how you might alter it—make it smoother, rounder, less hesitant.

I would enjoy hearing about your results. Leave a comment!!

Forwarded Article: Brain Health

Quote:

“Take, for example, the question of what happens to our brains as we age. New studies are showing how our behavior impacts healthy aging. As we age, routine becomes, well, routine. These routines shape our lives into ever narrowing circles of habits. At 30 or 40, the peak of our professional and family lives, a typical day may involve two or three meetings at the office, picking the kids up from soccer practice or driving them to a friend’s house, and making plans with friends to have dinner or catch a new movie. At 70 or 80, and now well into retirement, we’re less likely to engage in new hobbies and activities and stick to our comfort and routines. This may not be the best for our brains. To stay agile and robust, our brains benefit from diverse and new activities, new hobbies and interactions with others.”

This is the first piece in a special brain health initiative curated by Dr. Ali Rezai, Director of Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Stanley D. and Joan H. Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance. For more, visit The Huffington Post’s Brain Health page.

Mindful means….

Mindful means … being aware in the moment of the moment. No past, no future, only now. Not even now!

Watch Parkinson’s patient demo better balance

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