Tai chi – a gentle form of exercise

When I had a stroke some three years ago, I was fortunate enough to spend six months in rehab, getting myself in a better place to cope with the aftermath. I was taught tai chi, which I still practise most days.

The essential principles of tai chi are based on the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism, which stresses the natural balance in all things and the need for living in spiritual and physical accord with the patterns of nature. In nature, everything tends towards a natural state of harmony.[1] It is a system of exercises in which your mental concentration, breathing and actions are closely connected.

Research has shown that tai chi used in rehabilitation for stroke can improve physical and cognitive functioning,[2] and studies have shown that it can slow the mental decline  that comes with age, and may reduce the incidence of dementia among people who practise regularly.[3]

What does all this mean for me? Well, when I first started doing it, I had huge problems remembering the 18 moves. (The stroke gifted me problems with memory.) At rehab, this wasn’t a problem. We had an instructor, and it was written up in large writing on the notice board. One day, the instructor was telling us about the holiday he had planned, to a hot, sunny country where he was looking forward to doing tai chi in the pure blue waves lapping gently on to the beach.

Hmm. This made me think. There was no way I was going to get abroad – I needed to stay in rehab, and I wasn’t able to work so money was tight. But my brother-in-law had a caravan in Mablethorpe. Ever heard of Mablethorpe? A rather tired, very typical seaside town of yesteryear on the east coast of England. But it has a great beach, miles of golden sand, just over the road from the caravan. Oh, and a seal sanctuary where rescued blind Popeye is the star attraction.

So, I had my opportunity to practise tai chi in the sea, albeit most likely in the cold, grey waves of an English summer. But there was a problem – there would be no instructor to call out the next move, nor a handy noticeboard to jog my memory.    How was I going to remember all of those 18 moves? 

The moves in tai chi are named differently from the ones in the exercise classes I have come across. (Admittedly I have never taken part in any formal exercise class but occasionally I have watched inspirational videos before deciding that they are most definitely not for me.) Moves such as paint the rainbow or part the clouds, playing with the waves or flying like an eagle – these create images in the mind where you can dream about things – or form the images into concrete pictures. These pictures I inscribed in henna on my forearm. I lived with them 24/7 for weeks. As the henna faded, I topped up the pictures. Eventually, my fuddled mind started to remember them. I could glance at my arm when I got stuck – I still forget the sequence even now but at least I no longer miss out whole movements.

So a chilly August early morning found me paddling in the sea – not too deep – while I reflected on the beauty of my surroundings, and lapsed into meditation as my body formed moves that nourished my spirit. It was exhilarating, so different from tai chi at home.

I live in Birmingham, so the motorway traffic provides a backdrop to bird song, yet Tai Chi outside in my garden is a definite pleasure. And when it rains, so is in front of my TV with a video of tumbling water, or just in my bathroom before I clamber into the shower.  I’m no expert, and there is definitely room for improvement, but it is ‘me time’. It prepares me for my day.

I have arthritis in both hips and my lower spine, and a gammy knee, all of which affects my mobility. Some days I decide it’s not going to happen. As with any health issue, you should take appropriate advice before starting a course of exercise, and proceed with common sense and caution.

The following link is to a video of Master Wing Cheung demonstrating tai chi. I watch him in awe, and can only aspire to his grace and serenity, with little hope of achieving  it. To observe him is a meditation in itself.

Written by Portland Jones, PF Disabilities Liaison for the West Midlands

This blog is based on my own experiences, understanding and outlook. If you have any health problems, the NHS advise that you to speak to your GP before undertaking any form of exercise. As they say, better safe than sorry.

The links that I have given I have found via Google. I can make no assurances for the content.

[1]Dr Paul Lam, Tai Chi Health Institute, https://taichiforhealthinstitute.org/

[2] www.ncbi.nim.nih.gov

[3] www.health.harvard.edu