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Moving Meditation: Tai Chi for Arthritis Relief

Gentle movements of the ancient Chinese exercise tai chi are one of many alternatives to help elderly people find pain relief.

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

The movements of tai chi are gentle, graceful, mystical -- and, for elderly people, a very safe way to relieve arthritis pain and gain balance, strength, and flexibility. Tai chi is one of many alternative therapies that can provide relief from pain, possibly letting you cut back on pain medications.

Early mornings in large and small cities in China - and increasingly in America's parks, hospitals, and community centers - people are practicing tai chi. It is an ancient tradition said to have developed in medieval China, to help restore health of monks in poor physical condition from too much meditation and too little exercise.

Chi (pronounced chee) is the Chinese word for energy. In the healing arts, tai chi is used to promote the movement of energy through the body -- similar to blood being pumped through the body, explains Cate Morrill, a certified tai chi instructor in Atlanta. Morrill spends much of her time in teaching classes for seniors, many of whom are unfamiliar with this practice. "But after five, 10, 15 minutes of tai chi, they report having pain relief," she tells WebMD.

Virtually all major health organizations - including the Arthritis Foundation -- recommend tai chi as an activity for seniors because it provides balance of body and mind.

"The movements of tai chi keep the body fresh and allow the person to find a freer range of motion in the joints, greater flexibility, better balance," Morrill explains. Tai chi is often called "moving meditation," because it is relaxing, because the focus is on breathing and creating inner stillness -- quieting the mind, relaxing the body. When people focus on breathing and on the movements, they aren't focused on their worldly worries.

Older adults who try tai chi find the benefits flow into their everyday lives in surprising ways, Morrill tells WebMD. "Everyday stuff like gardening and cleaning the house -- even basic moves like getting in and out of a bathtub - are easier when muscles are strong and flexible, when there is proper balance and body alignment."

What Happens in Tai Chi Class

Tai chi movements are full of natural symbolism - "Wind Rolls with Lotus Leaves," "Brush Dust Against the Wind," and "White Crane Spreads Wings."

Yet the application of these moves is very practical: "Folks with arthritis in the knees tend to not bend their knees very much when they walk, so they tend to have a stiffer gait. Some tai chi exercise work to increase the knee flexibility," says Morrill.

For example, in the movement "Wave Hands Like Clouds," the focus is on the hands, which seem to drift like clouds in the air. But as the hands wave, the rest of the body is in continual slow motion, Morrill explains. The hips are driving the body motion -- as one leg bends, the other stretches, then the motion switches to the other side of the body. The arms rotate at the shoulder to strengthen shoulder muscles, which encourages the arms to stretch out fully. As weight is shifted, the body is slightly turned to produce flexibility in the waist and strength and flexibility in side muscles.

This movement may last only two minutes or so; during the hour-long class, seniors will complete at least 20 different sets of movements, says Morrill.

Seniors should not try learning tai chi from a video or DVD, she adds. A class setting, with qualified instructor who has worked with seniors, is essential. "Elderly students need an instructor who can correct their posture. If someone has severe arthritis in the left knee, they may not be able to do moves like someone who has a light case of arthritis. It's the instructor's job to modify movement to make it as safe and painless as possible for each student ... to select moves that are most appropriate."

Also, there's the camaraderie that comes from a class, Morrill tells WebMD. "People with arthritis tend to not get out much, but tai chi classes let them realize there are others in the same situation, so friendships develop, people support each other, they find other people they can share skills with. One might do the grocery shopping because the arthritis in her legs isn't too bad - and her friend does the cooking."

Gain Back 8 Years of Youth

According to legend, "if you meditate and do tai chi 100 days in a row, you gain back eight years of youth," says Morrill.

While many of today's tai chi movements have roots in martial arts, the goal is indeed therapeutic. Progress is measured in terms of coordination, strength, balance, flexibility, breathing, digestion, emotional balance, and a general sense of well-being.


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