When we think about old age, we can’t help but imagine a decline. Our joints seem to get stiffer and creakier, our muscles get weaker and all in all we just lose the stamina associated with youth. That does not have to be case! The great thing about Tai Chi is that it not only addresses the physical deficiencies associated with old age, but it teaches you mindfulness – how to take charge of your body and really think about how your body moves.
I remember seeing a physical therapist some years ago for terrible pain between my shoulder blades. One of the first things she did was look at my posture, and then how my body moved when I completed some simple tasks. For example, she asked me to reach to the top of a cupboard and grab something. She noticed that I always activated the muscles on both sides of my neck to lift up my arms, rather than also rely on the muscles between and around my shoulder blades. So the muscles between my shoulder blades were weak and the ones around my neck were overused. I probably would never had noticed this on my own and most of us do not. We do not think about how we move and why.
One of the things that changes as we get older is how we move. We begin to use more of our arms and legs when we move rather than our torso — we are usually a bit more “soft” in the middle as we age. It’s a chicken and egg situation — do we have a weak core because we do not use those muscles as much, or do we not use those muscles because they are weak? Whatever the case may be, if you look at children, their movements are powered by their torsos and they are often relaxed and free. The way they move seems to spring forward from their core which appears to propel their limbs as they gleefully tear about the landscape.
“As we start aging,” according to Dr. Hwa “less and less of our movements came from the waist and back. We hold our middle stiffly, and more of our movements originate from the shoulders and the hip joints. This puts pressure on joints and we lose strength and mobility. Ultimately, we may stop using these area, of our bodies altogether. Atrophy sets in, creating the major problems of aging.”
Now, look back at the example I gave about my painful upper back. I had settled into the dysfunctional habit of using the muscles in my neck (the “traps”) rather than fully engaging the other muscles in my upper torso and even my abdominal muscles for strength. This led to fatigue, stress and strain which was translated as excruciating pain! When you have a weak core, the rest of your muscles and your joints pick up the slack. Improving the strength of your core leads to better balance, coordination and the proper distribution of work across your muscles. When you use your core, your muscles relax and there is less tension in your joints as well. When you stand and walk (plus the transitions in between) in a way that engages your core, you are less likely to fall.
As I mentioned earlier, the problem is most of us do not think about how we move, nor do we want to spend all day analyzing our movements. The key is training. We trained our bodies to perform dysfunctional movements by repeating them over the years. In the same way, we can train our bodies to perform healthier movements. Tai Chi practice will train you to remain firmly planted in the ground and to flow from one movement to the next. You will notice how you shift your weight from one part of the body to another. As you become mindful of these movements, you will begin to realize what you’re doing wrong. You will begin to focus on your waist, how you move your abdomen when you turn and the small, graceful, isolated movements that come together to power your extremities. The more you practice Tai Chi, the more fluid and effortless the movements become.
It’s hard to imagine that one day those healthy movements will happen naturally. Do you remember learning how to tie your shoes or even which shoe goes on which leg? It seemed like you would never figure it out. Now you don’t even think about those things. Tai Chi is an even better learning curve. It is relaxing and social and in many scientific studies people who got into it for the study end up sticking to it for life. So, don’t sit back and think the decline with age is inevitable. You have more control over your body than you imagine. Consider trying Tai Chi today so you can begin to make small changes that will impact the rest of your life.