Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese art form known as a ‘moving meditation’.
It involves a series of postures performed in a focused, slow manner accompanied by deep breathing. In the past, Tai Chi was commonly recognized as a form of self-defense, but is now respected as a graceful form of therapeutic exercise. It is also considered an essential adjunctive therapy in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and utilized by practitioners for their own energetic, physical and mental health.
Michelle Greenwell is a 25-year veteran of Tai Chi and author of the internationally acclaimed, My Little Black Book of Qi: Qi YINtegration Set 1. Initially, she took up Tai Chi as a gift to herself and to deal with a debilitating cramping in her feet. As fate would have it, with a shortage of instructors and an evident need for them, Greenwell eventually found herself at the head of her own class.
She has since worked with a multitude of students who experience everything from a fused back (a surgical technique that joins two or more vertebrae) to knee and hip problems, anxiety and pacemakers (to regulate heart rhythm).
In 2004, the American Journal of Medicine conducted a 12-week clinical study to examine the effects of Tai Chi on the quality of life in patients with heart failure. Participants showed noted improvement in oxygen levels, stamina and in the distances that they were able to walk unassisted. The study concluded that Tai Chi, in conjunction with appropriate medical treatment, can be extremely beneficial.
Tai Chi is recognized for its elegant and fluid motions, generally preformed while the participant is standing upright. A truly beautiful aspect of Greenwell’s design of the practice is the inclusive nature. Due to her experience with kinesiology (the study of body movement) and her training as a dancer, she is able to convert the more traditional, full-range movements into positions easily accessible to those with a limited range of motion.
Greenwell says no matter what the style of Tai Chi, there is always a seated version in her teaching. This way, all of her students are able to reap the benefits, including individuals who are restricted to a bed and might assume this form of therapy isn’t accessible to them.
The therapeutic benefits of Tai Chi are found in the circulation of energy, measured breathing and mental focus. I found it quite heartwarming to discover a few simple hand movements can actually be very effective to strengthen and energize the spinal column, or a sluggish internal organ. All this can be done while the participant is laying down.
The phenomena of using one part of the body to treat the whole, mirrors the practice of TCM. Both work with the entire body system and in this case, will use sections of body – such as the arm, from hand to elbow – to represent other, more inaccessible areas – such as the torso, back or spinal column. In the case of one of Greenwell’s students, recovering from a hysterectomy and unable to move her midsection, a few simple turns of the wrist and flexing at the elbow encouraged energetic flow in the actual, physical spine. This was done from her hospital bed and a rapid surgical recovery was noted.
Greenwell says that because we spend so much time sitting, we have developed rather stiff physiques. With regular Tai Chi practice, we begin to reshape and strengthen our bodies – our tendons, fascia and ligaments – allowing for greater flexibility, increased circulation, energy flow and potentially better health, overall.
Greenwell also ‘prescribes’ specific Tai Chi movements to help treat physiological complaints, such as Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) – a condition characterized by uncomfortable leg sensations which can interfere with resting, or falling asleep.
In this case, a motion of simply raising and lowering ones’ arms while focusing on the rhythm of even breathing has proven effective. When the discomfort wakes her students up in the night, they perform the repeated movement, along with measured breathing. After a few minutes, the ‘super charge’ of energy running through the afflicted nerve is dispersed and they are able to return to sleep.