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.