Tai Chi-Qigong: A Whole-Person Approach to Restoring Function (MS, Stroke, Parkinson's, Arthritis)

Part 3 of a series on Tai Chi-Qigong for rehabilitation.

When one of our body parts stops functioning, let’s say an arm, there is such a mental, emotional and physical shock that we tend to focus our attention on that one part. If only that arm would move again!  We direct a lot of our energy toward it, often forgetting that it is attached to more functional parts, such as the shoulder and back—and indeed to the rest of the body.  Those other, more functional parts could be giving that weak part a boost if we could just see the arm as connected integrally with the rest of the body and get the whole thing moving as a unit.  

In Tai Chi-Qigong class we work with people as whole people, not as pieces and parts.  This is important for people with all kinds of injuries, neurological trauma, diseases and disabilities.  Let's take as an example four people with stroke who all had tightness and paralysis on one side. Here are some ways we worked on the whole person that ultimately helped the arms and hands improve function:

Posture: Posture is one of the fundamental elements of Qigong (Chi Kung) that we work on every week. Getting the body in alignment positions the body so that the various parts can function efficiently.  Elements of Qigong posture include the following:

• Feet parallel, about a shoulder width apart—provides a good foundation for all movement

• Knees slightly bent, hips tucked—helps center the torso, keeps the legs loose and flexible

• Flat back—enhances nerve function through the straight spine

• Open chest, shoulders back—positions shoulders and arms so they are able to move more efficiently. 

• Shoulders down and relaxed with a long neck—helps relax shoulder and neck muscles. (Tight chest and shoulder muscles often accompany a frozen arm and hand, so the whole shoulder, chest and neck area needs to be opened and loosened in order for the arm to function.)

• Crown of head up, straightening spine more, giving a feeling of being very tall.

The tall, aligned posture not only positions the body for efficient movement but also gives an emotional and psychological uplift. The process of alignment raises awareness of all of the body parts and their relation to each other.

Breathing:  Qigong breathing centers in the “dan tien” in the abdomen but encompasses the entire body through “whole body breathing.” Each movement offers an opportunity for breath to open the body very gently and yet very effectively in a unique way so that the whole body is stimulated and enriched, even those parts that are not accustomed to moving. Tissues that have been dormant or barely active are infused with oxygen through better blood circulation. Old toxins are cleared out of tissues. The brain is infused with oxygen, increasing alertness, attention and concentration. Breathing prepares the way for the physical, mental and emotional work of restoration to proceed. 

Slow, gentle movement and “extending:”  Slow, gentle Tai Chi-Qigong movement begins to open and gently stretch muscles and ligaments that have been locked in place for a long time. This is a process that can only be done gently and gradually so the body is not overstressed. During these gentle movements, there is often an instruction to “extend,” subtly stretching muscles, tissues and ligaments a little more, opening up and loosening joints and making the body more supple.  The picture above shows an extension during a movement called "Push Up the Sky.” Many Qigong movements have some element of “extension.” 

Core work and “waist turning:”  In Tai Chi-Qigong we teach a special skill of articulating between the upper and lower torso by turning at the waist, a movement which provides a powerful workout in the body core. Gaining awareness and control of the body core, centered in the “dan tien,” has a great variety of benefits for the whole body, including improved gait. Waist turning can provide up to 24 inches of side-to-side range of motion for a forearm and hand, even when the forearm and hand remain inactive. This range of motion extends the reach of a weak arm and hand and allows more easily manipulating objects in tandem with the stronger arm and hand.  

Relaxation:  The ability to relax the body is a powerful foundation for restoring function after any body trauma. Proper body alignment, breathing, slow gentle movement and “extending” enhance awareness of many subtle aspects of the body that have previously been hidden or unacknowledged.  One becomes aware of places that are tight or “knotty” or “locked up” and there is an opportunity to focus attention on those places and intentionally release tension. Repetition of movements and principles during a single session and over several weeks, develops empowerment to release tension and relax various parts of the body at will so that after a while the entire body begins to feel more supple and at ease. The relaxation of muscles allows more overall flexibility in the body so that the stiff or even paralyzed parts can achieve a greater range of motion. 

Energy work: Qigong energy exercises include visualizing moving the energy around the body in a variety of ways, coordinated with breathing. For example, one of the most fundamental energy paths is the microcosmic orbit, which begins in the abdomen, goes down between the legs, up the back, over the top of the head and back down to the abdomen. “Moving the energy” around this path with coordinated breathing has a great variety of benefits. One is that the person begins to get a sense of the connectedness of the entire body and begins to feel it come alive and sometimes even tingle or warm up with energy. There is increasing sensation in the skin and muscles and tissues and a feeling of getting in touch with the body at a deeper level.  Practicing moving energy through various paths enlivens the body and even provides ability to intentionally warm up cold extremities. 

In Qigong, the entire body becomes alert and ready to do the work of rehabilitation. We garner all of our resources as a person and learn how to unite them in achieving our goals of physical function and personal empowerment.  

Preview DVD: New Creation Tai Chi-Qigong for All Abilities 

Copyright by Anna York, 2010

[This is the third of a series on Tai Chi-Qigong for Rehabilitation. See the Archive for others.]



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