Photo courtesy of Taoist Tai Chi Association. Image by: Photo courtesy of Taoist Tai Chi Association.
"There's nothing more we can do for you."
Hearing those words from my physiotherapist was incredibly depressing. I received that bleak news in early 2005, while I was still trying to heal from an accident I'd had two years before. I had gone down a waterslide at a hotel and hit a concrete wall at the bottom, breaking a bone in one foot and spraining both ankles.
After the accident, my doctor recommended physiotherapy and very low-impact aquafit. It helped my ankles somewhat, but I still had to walk with a cane, my ankles tired easily, my stamina was low and my balance was severely compromised. I had a Type-A personality, and was a bit of an overachiever, single and incredibly focused on my job in contract administration. I had studied ballet and loved swimming and hiking. My mother would sometimes describe an elderly woman as being "unsteady on her pins." I had become that person. But I was only 42 years old.
The gloomy pronouncement from my physiotherapist lead to a decision that has turned my health around: a renewed commitment to Taoist tai chi, a practice that I had tried briefly several years earlier but had given up because of work and life commitments.
What is Taoist tai chi?
There are many styles of tai chi, which can vary in terms of the pacing of exercises as well as the number and types of moves. Taoist tai chi was developed by the late Master Moy Linshin, founder of the International Taoist Tai Chi Society based in Toronto. There are 500 branches in 25 countries around the world, making it one of the most accessible forms of tai chi. Taoist tai chi involves a set of 108 moves (don't worry, many of them are repetitions) and seven basic foundation exercises. They are designed to improve your physical, mental and spiritual well-being. To many people, this form of tai chi looks like a gentle martial art or a low-impact exercise. Others describe it as slow-moving meditation.
I originally started my practice of Taoist tai chi in 1997, at a branch of the society in Newmarket, Ont., that I had discovered on my daily drive to work. The slow-moving exercises, the gentle turning and the graceful stretches appealed to me. I was a quick study and easily grasped moves such as "White Stork Spreads Wings" and "Flying at a Slant." The beauty of Taoist tai chi is that the sequence of moves engages every muscle, ligament and tendon in your body. I could feel my body relaxing and my flexibility improving within the first few weeks of practice. I regretted having to give it up at the time, but it was the memory of how tai chi made me feel that compelled me to try it again in 2005.
Fate was smiling on me then. Just as I was primed to start a beginner's class I heard that the society was about to host one of its monthly Health Recovery Weeks at its retreat centre in Orangeville, Ont. It's a week-long program of intense tai chi for beginners and experienced practitioners alike. I took the plunge and signed up for the whole program.
Page 1 of 3 -- Find out just how tai chi helped speed Heather's recovery on page 2.
The recovery program attracts people from around the world who are looking to deal with a variety of health conditions, such as recovery from heart attack or stroke, arthritis and Parkinson's disease. Some participants were grappling with emotional issues; others just wanted to improve their overall well-being. The program also entices those who are stressed out from their jobs and need some sort of rejuvenation.
During the week we focused on 17 moves, doing them repeatedly over the course of each day. I started feeling better right away, and the swelling in my ankles went down within the first couple of days. I had taken my cane with me but didn't use it. What's more, I haven't used it since.
I know it sounds incredible, but by the third day I had regained my ability to put both my feet flat on the floor and could – at long last – stand in the shower with my eyes closed and maintain my balance. I started sleeping more soundly, too, and I was feeling energetic, confident and much happier than I'd been in a long time. For me, there's also a psychological boost from doing tai chi in a group, a spillover of positive energy from the other people who are doing the moves with you.
In February I took up regular tai chi classes in Newmarket again, intent on maintaining the health improvements I'd experienced during the recovery week. By May I was walking long distances and I had returned to swimming – one of my passions. And, of huge importance to me, my balance was fully restored. One evening at home while I was watching TV, I suddenly realized I was actually sitting on the floor. I hadn't been able to do that in years. I was reclaiming my body. What's more, I suddenly had more flexibility than when I was 17 years old! I was getting my old life back.
About 18 months later, I had another accident. It happened when I moved into a new apartment in Toronto and tried, on my own, to shift the refrigerator just a few inches. I slipped backward and hit my back, neck and head. A week and a half later, somebody bumped into me and I fell on the sidewalk, hitting my head once more. My balance issues returned, and I fell several more times in the following weeks.
A series of scans and X-rays revealed I had a whiplash-like injury to my neck and swelling in the soft tissues at the back of my head, which is where our centre of balance is located. I also had problems concentrating and suffered really bad headaches. At the time I was enrolled in massage school, which I had to give up because I couldn't stand for very long. I was also doing less tai chi because of my busy schedule. That had to change.
Page 2 of 3 -- On page 3, find out where you can find tai chi in your community.
Again, I turned to Taoist tai chi to help me recover. The effects were immediate. On days I did a lot of tai chi, my balance was hugely improved and my headaches disappeared. When I skipped tai chi, the pain returned and I had less energy. For me, it become a no-brainer. The spiritual and psychological benefits of Taoist tai chi are hard to describe if you haven't done it, but I find I'm much happier, more at ease than I've been in a long time. Taoist tai chi has given me renewed hope after the battering my body has endured.
I eventually was asked to become an instructor and I now teach one beginner tai chi class each week, and participate in two continuing classes (which people graduate to after learning the set of 108 moves). I also make a point to practise on my own as often as I can. If I get incredibly busy or am on the road for work and go several days without doing any tai chi, I get tired, my neck stiffens, and then come the headaches and balance issues. That's my reminder to do some tai chi. I've learned to listen to my body, listen to my soul.
Just what the doctor ordered
"Tai chi engages all muscles in the body, and has cardio benefits as well," says Dr. Bruce McFarlane, a physician from Collingwood, Ont., who is medical adviser to the International Taoist Tai Chi Society. "It helps regulate the immune system, lessens spinal degeneration and has been shown to improve the lives of people living with rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and diabetes, to name a few conditions."
McFarlane adds that, because so many of the moves in Taoist tai chi are weight-bearing exercises, it's also great for people concerned about bone density, osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. "Because of a unique form of stretching that involves simultaneous lengthening, turning and relaxation, all of the body's tissues are gradually exercised. Initial efforts to free up movement in the hip joints progress to an increasing range of motion in the internal joints of the pelvis and in the multiple joints of the spine." The stretching gradually extends into the internal tissues of the body, engaging the respiratory system, diaphragm, pelvic floor, ligaments and connective tissues that support your spine and abdominal organs. The sequence of the 108 moves in Taoist Tai chi also encourages circulation of blood and lymph.
Everyone responds to tai chi differently because people's bodies are so different, and our health challenges vary. "I have seen remarkable improvement for women who are recovering from breast cancer treatment, whose lymph nodes have been removed, taking away the circulation in their hands and limbs," says McFarlane. "Swollen fingers can often regain form, and stiff hands their movement, from even a couple hours of tai chi."
• To find a Taoist tai chi class near you or learn more, visit www.taoist.org. Classes
are all taught by trained volunteers in relaxed settings.
Page 3 of 3 -- Find out exactly what tai chi is and how it can help your physical and spiritual well-being on page 1.