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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Adapt to change with tai chi

Tai chi is a tool for adapting to changing conditions. Change prevails wherever you look. The weather changes. The wind blows, doesn’t blow, blows hard, then is a breeze. The temperature is hot, cool, cold. It’s raining or it’s dry. Grass is green and moist, or brown and maybe tinder dry. A tree never stops growing. It’s always at some point of changing from a sprout to a tree. Even a desert plant that seems never to grow is active in its own way. Water flows in a stream or river. It is never the same river, they say. People change. We flow, or stumble, through emotions all day and even through our dreams at night. Change prevails. Tai chi is a method of adapting to change by focusing on the act of change itself.

It seems human beings are the only ones who want things to stay the same. Sometimes we call it the “status quo,” sometimes simply inertia. Not that it’s a bad thing—it’s serves its purpose. But some things we hold onto no longer have purchase in a ever-shifting world. They are not serving other than to hold us back from evolving. Staying the same will not always protect us from the onslaught of the constant flux that surrounds us. The whole universe is in constant flux. Time itself seems constant, yet it is nothing if not constantly changing, moving ever out of the moment into another. The present is not the same now as before.

We can change what and how we think and we do it all the time. Rather than thinking you want things to stay the same, you can want them to find equilibrium—balance. That balance is what taijiquan attends to.

Tai chi still requires adapting and shifting with the tides, but it gives you a way to do that.

Many beginners who give up before reaching a threshold of practice view tai chi as too much to learn. You tell yourself that you’ll never be able to learn all that. As a teacher, I have had many difficult moments trying not to blame myself for that thinking. I want to make tai chi available to as many people as I possibly can, but they quit before they learn enough to see what it offers them. I know now that tai chi hasn’t failed them, nor have I, rather they have failed to see the potential for themselves, electing to go the same route that has led them away from a personal evolution.

I don’t blame them, even though change is easier than they think. The key is to approach it with a mind of taking small steps and learning a little at a time and building a bunch of little pieces of knowledge and ability upon previous learning. One day you’ll look back and see a massive body of knowledge buoying you up.

It’s not a matter of overcoming inertia as much as acting in spite of it. Inertia seems much more overwhelming than possible to overcome. Too great of a mass of resistance. And yet, often the simple act of standing in Wuji, the first posture of tai chi, is enough to set you off on a new path of awakening.

 

Learn more at DurangoTaiChi.com

Pure, clear, strong and free

I have to remind myself often of this. If I don’t, my conviction wavers.

Pure heart,

Clear mind,

Strong body,

Free spirit.

Mind-body health goes both ways

I tend not to feel good unless my body feels healthy and strong. My mental health is influenced by my physical health. It goes both ways, of course. People seek out feeling good through artificial means, such as drugs, pain killers, mind altering chemicals, and other forms of mediated reality. But they don’t usually give the body itself everything it needs, which is strengthening exercises.

Even if it’s just walking, which is as good as anything else. Walking, or hiking, can round out a complete exercise practice along with a package of various practices, such as stretching, qigong, single-basic exercises and tai chi form.

Don’t take my word for it. This is just my personal opinion. Take a walk. Walk until you have shifted your view from yourself to the countryside. By then your mind will be cleared and your body will feel better.

A special key to internal movement

Do you know what is so special about internal movement arts? Control. Mind control specifically. That’s where it begins. You focus your attention on a focal point in the body, initiate movement in certain directions and shapes, then sustain that focus. Control the mind and the body follows.

Control doesn’t mean just to hold some place still. It means being more capable of effecting change. It’s very important to realize that control is not about maintaining status quo, it’s about overcoming inertia.

Bully through the pain

You can’t bully your way through the pain. You have to negotiate with it to alleviate it. Give it a wide breadth while you keep a mind towards overcoming habitual postural positions that feed it.

About Tai Chi and Social Connection

Tai chi classes are social experiences, learning new things in a group setting and practicing together. You get exercise, but you also can reap the benefits of social connection.

Research shows that older people are happier and less lonely when they spend time with others. Research also shows they can even be healthier. Evidence suggests that we even live longer by virtue of being part of a regular sharing and caring group.

It doesn’t have to be your biological family, either. A tai chi family is just as powerful in overcoming loneliness and in creating a safe environment to explore activities that are shown to be positive influences for physical and mental health.

I invite newcomers to see how tai chi and social connections can make their lives more engaging and active. March is beginners’ month.

WALKING A MINDFUL MILE

All the doctors and such tell us we should walk at least a mile a day. You would think that anyone could walk a mile who is reasonably healthy and able to. How you walk that mile can make a big difference in the potential benefits. How you walk. It’s in the walk. Do tai chi when you walk and you’ll get a lot more out of a mile. Observe how the parts move and how each contributes to the whole as it makes its way through your mindful mile. You’ll have to walk many days, a mile a day to sustain attention on the many parts available to examine. Quality not quantity.