I’ll start with a quote:
“You become what you practice. Practice becoming healthy and you will become healthy. Practice becoming relaxed and you will become relaxed. Practice letting go of negative habits and they will increasingly dissolve and disappear.”
Liu Hung Chieh (1905 – 1986)
At the beginning of 2016 I discovered that the class that Steve Jones held on Friday lunchtimes was just 200 yards from my house. Due to no address being shown in his leaflets I had no idea that the listed ‘Cancer Centre’ venue was the one so close to me. I figured that I should start going to this class but Steve said that it was really just for beginners and he never took people beyond the first part of the form. I swallowed my disappointment and then cheekily asked if he needed anyone to assist him. Being the bloke that he is he readily allowed me to go along and try my hand at passing on the limited amount of knowledge that I had. They say that the best way to learn is to teach and I was about to confirm this adage. I felt that I had finally earned my stripes when Steve asked me to keep this class going while he was on holiday.
Much to my surprise, in the middle of the year, Steve then began asking me to take groups of people in the two Thursday afternoon classes in teaching them the form. If someone had said to me in 2014 that I would be actually teaching others within little more than 18 months of renewing my interest in Tai Chi I would have told them they were mad. The final compliment came when Steve discovered that he would have to give up the Friday class due to other commitments and asked me if I would be interested in taking on the task. This presented quite a degree of commitment, especially for the retired person who has discovered that, as only those who have reached that stage of life will know, there really isn’t, despite one’s expectations, any extra time available.
So, what did I do? I jumped at the chance with my only concern being continuity of the class if I should be away from home. I covered this by inviting, with Steve’s approval, another chap, named Malcolm of course just to confuse the class members, to join me in leading the group. Malcolm Johnson started Tai Chi at around the same time as I came back to it. He has a long history of involvement with Karate, reaching the grade of fifth dan. But his is another story and maybe he’ll consider telling it.
To everyone reading this you deserve an ice lolly for getting this far. To those who are feeling, as I was earlier on, that they will take for ever to realise that most satisfying achievement of learning the form through to its end – take heart. You can do it, but not without a bit of working with it. Try to have a go at home practising what you have learned in class. It will pay you enormous dividends.
Motivation is the keyword which means, and I just can’t help it, putting another of my poems in here (sorry Steve):
If I try to start doing
The things that need doing
But find I’ve not even begun
Then wonder why
Whatever I try
The things that need doing aren’t done
You could say it’s a trait
Or of mind it’s a state
A thing that’s peculiar to me
But it’s no good just sighing
I’ve got to keep trying
To get over this difficulty
I should take on advice
From one who’ll be nice
And treat me for just what I am
Maybe then I’ll be better
An ardent go getter
Not a lazy lethargic old man
Am I really like that
A trodden doormat
Can I say that that’s really me?
I’d like to think not
But what have I got?
My health and my own liberty
Nothing else matters
Even if I’m in tatters
I’ve got to stand up against strife
Wherever I’m going
I’ve got to keep knowing
That this is a wonderful life.
One final personal observation to mention. I have come across those who are worried that they might damage their fragile bodies by practising Tai Chi for health. This especially relates to those with limited motion in their joints, most often due to arthritic changes. I discovered in 1993 that my right knee was significantly arthritic and over the ensuing years it became obvious that my pain-free walking distance was reducing. Not exactly great news for a keen rambler. I had a real worry that taking up Tai Chi again in 2014 might be detrimental for this offending joint. I need not have worried. My walking distance has improved considerably over the last two years (I also attribute some of this to my diet) and whereas I used to be in real trouble after six miles, last October I climbed a 2900ft Scottish mountain (Ben Arthur, ‘The Cobbler’) from sea level, covering 13 miles in the process, with no more than a slight twinge. To my conventional scientific brain this makes no sense, but at least it shows that I need have had no fears that Tai Chi would be risky.
I have come across individuals in our classes who are so ingrained with the idea that all pain signifies harm and have developed, on this basis, a state of fear of moving. Then there’s the ‘no gain without pain’ brigade who will thrash their bodies to the limit in order to achieve some goal or other. I haven’t come across any of those in the classes I attend. But, the age-old saying, ‘use it or lose it’ comes to mind, and is very true. So, as a retired physiotherapist, what is my advice to those who fear harming themselves by practising Tai Chi?
Giving a very brief overview, with joints of the body, let’s consider three types of pain:
- a) Constant, unremitting whatever position the joint is in.
- b) Intermittent, only at the end of its range.
- c) Intermittent, during its available range but not at the end of range.
If your joint(s) are only painful when moving, at the end of available range (type b), then try taking them gently at first, say 10 times, to where the pain begins. Make a mental note of how long, if at all, this pain persists afterwards. If we look at both ends of the scale there are two reactions you can encounter:
- The pain might disappear immediately after the movements – there is no harm done here.
- The pain persists for hours after the movements – It’s likely that continuing with this degree of end-of-range force on the joint will be harmful. But it doesn’t mean that all motion will be harmful.
Your responses may well be somewhere in between these extremes and then it becomes a matter of common sense as to whether it is safe to move in this way. If your pain persists but is diminishing and disappears over the next hour or two and is no worse the next time you apply the same movements you may well find that over time your range increases and your pain at end of range decreases. You are safely improving your function. I’m sure many of our Tai Chi school have experienced this. Another principle that can be applied is to only move the joints of your body to 70% of their total range. You will keep out of painful ranges and, albeit slowly, you may find that your overall range increases.
If you are in either of the other two categories then you need some form of medical diagnosis and from there determine, by careful application, if you are making any progress, or at least remain no worse, with exercises. Of course, your own judgement is paramount.
Well, that’s about it folks. Time will tell if there’s a part four to this story coming up in the future. Most of all enjoy your Tai Chi as much as I have.
Finally a quote from one of the prominent Tai Chi teachers I met on my journey:
“You can practice Tai Chi if you are fat or thin, healthy or just out of bed after major surgery, young, middle aged or very old.”
“Tai Chi is about how you feel not about how you look”