Tai Chi, the famous ancient martial art developed in ancient China, has become one of the most common exercises in public parks and open locations due to its therapeutic and health benefits. Recent studies have shown that the practice of this method can also help improve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, making it a great tool to complement the treatment of the condition.
In the People’s Republic of China, Tai Chi is a very popular activity and a common sight in many public parks in the nation’s biggest cities. It is not uncommon to see hundreds of people, both old and young alike, practicing Tai Chi’s slow and fluid movements. Originally, Tai Chi was an internal martial art, which conditions the battle for close combat, in both its armed and unarmed variants. In recent times, however, the practice of this discipline has been adopted by many individuals around the world as a tool to improve the person’s quality of life, both physically as well as spiritually.
Formally known as tai chi chuan, the practice of this method has become widespread around the globe, and each culture that partakes of it adds its own personal touch to the classic formula. Nevertheless, most individuals who practice it do so due to health issues and concerns, as a relaxation exercise, or as a very effective meditation tool. In China, where the method was invented, it is still being practiced, aside from a therapeutic standpoint, in a competitive setting. Despite its growing popularity, only a handful of individuals actually practice it competitively, or as self-defense or as a way of life tool which, ironically, was its original purpose.
Unlike other formal disciplines, there are no international federations to regulate and oversee the practice of the technique. In the case of tai chi chuan, there are numerous styles and variants, imparted by a multitude of instructors and teachers around the world. There are, however, several groups dedicated to the representation of the discipline’s most common variants. For these reasons, there is no general consensus on which is the best or most predominant variation. Instead, each style has its own practice, as well as its unique method to form new instructors and trainees.
The reigning principle behind tai chi chuan is the fluidity of the user’s movements. The person must move naturally in each exercise, with a relaxed, loose, and fluid demeanor. When practicing tai chi, there are no exercises of strength or agility, such as the block-breaking practices of other martial arts. On the contrary, it is explicitly stated that each tai chi movement is performed with the least effort possible. In stark contrast to other arts, tai chi chuan is practiced at a very slow pace in order to fully apply each technique in the most correct way possible. However, some tai chi chuan practices are performed at a faster pace, such as those that require weapons.
Similarly, some isolated movements require explosive bursts of agility and strength. In combat, the fighter is required to “adhere” to the opponent. In other words, the combatant must always maintain contact with the adversary. Instead of reacting to attacks with his or her own counterattacks, the body must react in a natural and fluid manner to blows, without any type of resistance whatsoever. In this manner, the fighter can effectively curb the opponent’s strength, and deflect it against him.
Parkinson’s and Tai Chi
Due to its slow and fluid movements, tai chi is an ideal practice for those who suffer from Parkinson’s disease. The disease is characterized by constant involuntary spasms and shakes that constantly assail the affected individual on a daily basis. Due to said involuntary movements, the person has difficulties performing fine motor motions and, in the advanced phases of the disease, even walking or getting around without assistance becomes an insurmountable feat. Consequently, those who suffer from Parkinson’s usually have balance issues and are at constant risk of falling and hurting themselves. Interestingly enough, the number one reason for emergency room visits in patients with Parkinson’s disease is due to falling.
The above risk is further exacerbated when considering the average age at which most individuals are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. More often than not, the disease is observed in individuals of over 60 years of age, a factor which further adds to the condition’s inherent risk of falling. As people grow older, their reflexes, coordination, and general motor skills take a hit, which can make it more difficult to offset the imbalance created by Parkinson’s. On top of it all, the loss of vision and muscle atrophy caused by old age, coupled with the side effects of certain Parkinson’s medication can also increase the chance of injury for those with Parkinson’s.
Fortunately, as it turns out, tai chi chuan is making great progress in the Parkinson’s community, as the practice of this discipline allegedly helps to improve most of the condition’s inherent symptoms.
According to Bill Douglas, of the Tai Chi and Qigong Day, the practice of this discipline stimulates around 95% of the body’s muscles, which is much more than what other exercises offer. The closest other disciplines come to providing these movements is around 65%, which is offered by swimming.
But what does this mean for those with Parkinson’s?
If any given discipline can continuously exercise almost every muscle in the body, and make them move in ways that no other method does. There is a good possibility that their balance will improve considerably which, in turn, will reduce the possibility of suffering from Parkinson’s most common type of injury. By performing said movements, the body is inherently more resilient to losing its balance due to Parkinson’s symptoms.
Despite the existence of other exercises, tai chi is the most effective method for improving the coordination and balance of those who practice it. For those that suffer from Parkinson’s, whose balance is constantly degrading as years go by, it is almost imperative that they are informed of this method, and of the benefits it can provide to those afflicted with the disease. There are a few exceptions, however: those who are too old or crippled by the disease as to prevent them from performing the movements might not benefit as much as the ones who started practicing tai chi early on. Nevertheless, with enough persistence and practice, this technique will definitely have something to offer to people of all ages.