Arthritis might keep you from doing deep knee bends or lobbing a ball, but you can still push a mountain.
Pushing mountain, waving hands in a cloud and playing lutes are all movements of a style called Twelve-Movement Tai Chi for Arthritis. At the Pleasant Hill Adult Education Center, about 30 people have showed up on this rainy Friday for a 9:30 a.m. class. Before they begin, they pull the yellow chairs in a circle, sit and talk about administrative details and their progress.
Then the chairs go back and they stand for their warm-up at a slow easy PACE using People with Arthritis Can Exercise routines from the Arthritis Foundation: head right, left, up, down, rotate the shoulders.
Then, after the warm-up, the moves begin: slow, oh so slow. The movement the fifth in the series of six scheduled for the winter session looks deceptively simple to the layman, but its fluid, subtle grace contains a rich depth for the practitioner especially one for whom most exercises are out of reach.
“It goes out of its way to be gentle,” says Nancy Kieffer, who brought the Tai Chi for Arthritis to the Bay Area last summer. She first learned Yang style the most common tai chi form practiced in America about 10 years ago. She still practices in Walnut Creek with the Tai Chi Players Association but has been teaching the special class since last summer. Kieffer learned the form from a workshop taught by Dr. Paul Lam, the Australian physician who with a panel of medical experts created the modified form.
Lam was himself diagnosed with arthritis while a medical student. He undertook various styles of tai chi to exercise and became so proficient that he won a gold medal in an international competition. He encountered the Sun style, a seemingly simple and relatively new tai chi form, and saw how the movements could be adapted for those with arthritis. In three years, the program has spread throughout Australia, picked up the blessing of the Arthritis Foundation of Australia, and made its way Stateside. There are a Web site (www.taichiforarthritis.com) and video, and the book is due out this fall.
About 43 million Americans suffer some form of arthritis one in six people. In about 20 years, that number should increase to one in five. There are many different forms of the ailment but, “most people, when they think of arthritis, they think of osteoarthritis, the wear-and-tear kind,” explains Dr. Brian Kaye, a rheumatologist with offices in Orinda and Berkeley. Rather than abandoning all movement, a regimen of exercise and medicine is prescribed. “I absolutely recommend tai chi,” he says. “Usually it’s fairly gentle, it’s not a very strenuous exercise, it works on lots of different parts of the body.”
In the past few years, Western empirical studies have backed up centuries of Chinese wisdom, persuading more and more physicians like Dr. Kaye of tai chi’s efficacy. For instance, a 1996 Emory University School of Medicine study found tai chi reduced the risk of falls among seniors nearly by half.
“It takes your joints through a full range of motion,” says Judith Horstman, author of “Arthritis Foundation Guide for Alternative Therapies” and co-author of Dr. Lam’s upcoming book. The art also strengthens muscles, improves coordination, develops posture and fosters spatial awareness.
Of course the art, like anything else, is not a quick cure-all. “Tai chi is not like surgery (where) you go in one day, you spend six hours in the operating theater and you come out again,” says Paul Taylor, an assistant instructor with the Wen Wu School of Martial Arts in El Cerrito. “You’re changing your body, you’re changing the weight of your body sometimes you’re changing the constitution of your body.”
Tai chi won’t stave off the inevitable aches of aging. At 73, Marnie Ackerman is a veteran in her Yang-style tai chi class in Walnut Creek. She has arthritis in her neck, leg, hips and, just like her mother, in her hands. Indeed, the onset of symptoms came in her late 60s, the same age as it did for her mother. “She found she was not able to play (piano) much at all because of her arthritis in her hands,” recalls Ackerman, who had to wear splints when the condition first flared.
Still, “it didn’t hold me back. I just did what I could In tai chi, (if) you hurt, you pull back and go gently,” she says, who adds years of practice have developed an intuitive sense of her limits. “Tai chi is an awareness tool I wouldn’t want to quit at all ever. It helped me focus, and it helps my balance, which gets harder and harder, but I know what to do.” Ackerman, by the way, didn’t need to wear her splints for long and continues her workout five times a week.
For those who find tai chi too rigorous, the adapted program offers an opportunity and an option. “The stances are not as wide and not as low,” Kieffer explains. “You don’t twist very much. You don’t kick.” Just as with regular tai chi, a lot of emphasis is placed on breathing. “The Chinese say you’re born with a certain number of breaths, so don’t waste them.”
Concord resident Robin Malby appreciates the Tai Chi for Arthritis’ approach. She had been an active full-time kindergarten teacher, mother and skier before a lower back injury and accompanying pains left her fatigued. She was later diagnosed with fibromyalgia, an arthritic condition which affects the muscular system.
Malby tried a regular tai chi course, but couldn’t sustain the pace. When Kieffer’s class appeared in the adult center catalog and at such a low cost she signed right up. “I felt a difference immediately. We’re not talking cure here, it’s not like I was suddenly well or anything like that,” Malby says. “I was really pleased how well I did in the class, and how well I managed to keep up.” She now hopes to be able to move on to other exercises, but she wants to keep tai chi as her main focus because “it’s so calm.”
Edna Beck, who’s on the second session of Kieffer’s class, found she regained motions that most people take for granted. “I used to have a great deal of pain driving, shifting from the gas to the accelerator,” she recalls. “I don’t anymore.” Frustration has been part of the process, but one shared by the class. Tai chi long been lauded for demanding a concentration of one’s mind, spirit and body may look like a solo effort, but it’s one that thrives on a group dynamic.
That’s a big reason why Beck has signed on for the long term. “It’s a lot of fun.”