Tai Chi and Me

Just thought I’d document my experiences of Tai Chi, and finding a group suitable for me.

I’ve found that there are many variations of Tai Chi and many different teachers with varying philosophies and teaching  attitudes. Not all have suited me.

My first encounter with Tai Chi was around 1997. I had been struggling with the effects of what was thought to be Meniere’s Disease for several years, and in 1995 it was confirmed that it was affecting both of my ears. I had hoped that the disease would burn itself out, and in some ways the acute episodes of vertigo had moderated but I was left feeling off-balance and generally dizzy most of the time. I thought my general health and fitness was beginning to suffer through being sidelined so often by this disease. I was getting back pain both lower, middle and upper, and there were strange things going on with my feet that I couldn’t quite explain at the time, but I know now to be the first signs of impending foot drop.

So I decided it was time to get fit again. I tried to learn a little through reading books, and although the book was very good, extremely detailed in fact, it became obvious that I needed a teacher and to take part in a group with other learners.

The First Foray

I found a group in Bristol UK, that seemed to offer what I wanted, so happily went off for my first session. Although the teacher was a very pleasant chap, he tried several times to correct my back posture, by physically pushing and pulling me into position. I could feel the tension at the time, but it was the next day when I realised I had been pushed too far. The pain around my back into my ribs was excruciating. I decided right there and then that I would not go to those classes again.

Another Attempt – Success – Shibashi Chi Kung

A few years later I tried again. It was before my diagnosis for HNPP and I was still struggling with balance problems and the continued problems with my feet. So I booked up sessions of Tai Chi Shibashi Chi Kung which was on offer through a local council run day class. Now this was more like it. These were gentle classes, where each session started with a short period of meditation, followed by gentle warm up exercises and then learning an 18 step mini form of CHi Kung. As far as I can gather Chi Kung or Qi Gong is a form of Tai Chi Breathing exercise (This might not be correct, but that is how it seems to me). Each movement is repeated a number of times, and then moves into the next step.

One of the main principles taught was that of the Soft Limit. This was taught as not going beyond that which is comfortable and relaxed, as soon as tension (or pain) is felt move back until that recedes, that is the soft limit the maximum point where one remains relaxed, in balance and centred. An important aspect of this is that no two people are the same, so don’t try to emulate another, always remain in control and within your own soft limit. As I came to learn with HNPP my soft limit can change from day to day and even minute by minute. This is such a valuable lesson and technique for learning just where my body is day by day, sensing out to find which parts are working and which are not. It really is a focused way of listening to the body.

2017 – Starting Lessons Again

Over the last few years I had been asked by the Respiratory Nurses at my local health centre whether I would consider taking up a Pulmonary Rehabilitation course. Now, I had been on one of these courses back in 2007, and although it was well worth doing the difficulties came with their lack of knowledge of HNPP. Not only HNPP but the combination with inner ear balance problems and COPD/Asthma. Although I was keen to take up some form of regular exercise I thought that this would be more frustrating than helpful. As luck would have it I had an appointment with my Neurorehab Dr. in the summer, and he suggested I could attend a Falls Clinic, which very conveniently was at our local hospital less than 1/4 of a mile away from home.

It was good going to the Falls Clinic, just exercises for balance, a bit on the bike machines, and a some group work with the other members. It’s actually good to be part of a group, and to be taking active steps toward maintaining physical fitness. All tailored to meet my needs.

As the course came to an end they suggested that I continue at the local Gym with a rehab group run by physiotherapists. This sounded great, but when I got there my abilities had been over estimated and the types of exercise available were not at all suitable. Thankfully the physiotherapist could see that this was not a suitable group for me, and during a discussion with her at my home I mentioned my liking for Tai Chi, but that I needed an easy going group which accounted for people with less than optimal fitness. She put me in touch with Swansea Tai Chi and the classes run for the U3A  (University of the 3rd Age).

I am on my 6 or 7th session. My partner comes along with me, and there is a group of between 6 and 10 people, some with obvious health difficulties and others looking for exercise in their retirement.

Whilst they haven’t mentioned the Soft Limit specifically, it is implied in all the teaching so far. It definitely is not competitive like the first group I went to back in 1997.

I have to be careful not to overdo any exercises, not so much the Tai Chi form or the Tai Chi Breathing, but the warm up exercises. They are quite simple limbering up movements, testing and exercising the joints and loosening muscles. But they have caused me problems, particularly with neck and shoulders, and hips. So arm stretches, hip rotations and head/neck rotations have to be carried out gently, with adherence to the soft limit, ie easing off when I feel the slightest bit of tension or pain.

I can foresee some problems with the Tai Chi breathing exercises too. There are a few which are designed to stretch the ‘channels’, and I will need to be careful not to overstretch.

Overall I’m enjoying it very much.

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