In stillness, all things are healed.
— Taoist proverb
A recently published article summarized the effects of Tai Chi on functional mobility, balance and falls in Parkinson’s disease. As a practitioner of Tai Chi for 40 years, its application in health has been long been of interest to me, particularly as my mom died from complications of Parkinson’s.
I start every day with at least a half hour of Tai Chi movement, either in the pool or on land. I studied for seven years with Tai Chi Master Waysun Liao in Oak Park, Illinois, who encouraged me to learn acupuncture, which incorporates the energetic and healing principles of Tai Chi.
While less well known or available than yoga, Tai Chi shares many characteristics of yoga including breathing practices, healthful movement, postures, meditation, focus on mindfulness, and body awareness. Tai Chi is practiced primarily standing while yoga has many floor or seated postures/asanas. The standing format can make Tai Chi more accessible to older adults including those with Parkinson’s. Sitting Tai Chi is an option for those who cannot stand comfortably of safely for prolonged periods.
Developed originally as a martial art in the Shaolin temples of China, this slow moving, ballet-like practice is now becoming more widely known. With teachers becoming more available and with the ubiquity of the internet, online and YouTube options regarding basic forms and meditations, anyone can learn to do Tai Chi. I strongly recommend a book by my esteemed colleague, Dr. Peter Wayne: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, which offers a 12-week course on Tai Chi, including Qi Gong breath and energy work as well.
How Tai Chi helps Parkinson’s patients are in part effects of slow repetitive shifting of weight from one leg to another, challenging the balance control system to maintain its center of mass within a changing base of support. This is likely the same reason that Tai Chi has long been shown to reduce fear of falling in other studies of older adults.
Tai Chi has a moderate aerobic benefit despite not raising heart rate much or at all. Breathing is deep, slow and rhythmic, thus calming the autonomic nervous system and reducing the stress response. Balance, strength, flexibility and motor functions are all improved. Tai Chi improves physical function in Parkinson’s patients by reducing dyskinesia and bradykinesia (slowness of movement), thus helping improve posture and the ability to walk.
Postural stability is central to quality of life in patients with Parkinson’s and Tai Chi was superior to interventions such as resistance training, stretching, and walking exercises for improving balance and reducing falls in patients with Parkinson’s.
Another physical therapy program, not related to Tai Chi, but that helps with both movement and voice is called Big and Loud. Check into this. The Parkinson’s Foundation has endorsed Tai Chi among other exercise modalities as part of a holistic approach to this condition.
Primary care doctors and neurologists who manage patients with Parkinson’s ought to consider recommending this ancient and gentle movement system to patients and their families.