Tai Chi and Qi Gong for cancer support

Tai Chi and Qi Gong for cancer support

Tai Chi and Qi Gong are both martial and medical arts; here we tell you how to find an appropriate class, what to expect, and what results you may well achieve; this article also covers Dao Yin, Ba Duan Jin, and Taoist and Buddhist meditation. (By Sifu Tony Dove; https://www.standinglikeatree.co.uk).

Chinese Internal Exercise

Both Tai Chi and Qi Gong (Chi Kung) as well as many other arts fall into the category of Chinese Internal Exercise. Historically they are rooted in a mix of martial, medical and meditative traditions. What separates them from External Exercise is more to do with how it is practiced rather than what is practiced. This aspect is probably the hardest thing to get across. They have a long history of helping people improve aspects of their health. In the main most people generally feel better for practice whatever their starting point. In my 30 years of teaching, I have taught from age 6 to 104. The only groups that ever found it difficult were teenagers, who are often too self-aware and overly muscular body builders whose muscles ask a high demand on their circulation and therefore practice can be quite painful. In my 30 years I have spent the last 20 years specialising in the over 50s (read over 80s) and on specialised groups.

Stage1 - Finding a Teacher

There is no real Tai Chi governing body. There are groups with fancy names with national in their title. These can be a good starting place, like the National Union Of Tai Chi. However, many excellent teachers will only be attached to their ‘lineage' school. (in my case The Lam Association.) Try googling ‘Tai Chi and Qi Gong’ followed by your location; look for ads in local papers or better still ask friends. However, there is a tradition of being humble as a teacher and only advertising quietly.

If you find someone online, you can check their credentials on the website. Teachers are generally proud of their backgrounds and should include them in their literature. They should also have a fair amount of experience. All teachers must start somewhere. With special need classes the teacher should have either a long history of teaching more normal classes before or, better still, have been doing that for a while too. Tai Chi takes time to understand and longer to be able to teach. Many long-term teachers will have at least some experience in Chinese and/or Western medical approaches and may well have proper qualifications. However, attending a course for a few weekends or, worse just an online course, may result in a certificate but does not qualify someone to teach.

So, after checking their background, the next thing is to contact the teacher directly. Most will be happy to talk for a short time. But they will be deciding if they want you as a student as much as you are assessing them. Don’t worry, we are usually nice. Be honest about your condition. Ask them if they can help. We are usually honest too, if we cannot help, we should say. They also may have specific classes to fit your needs.

Now this is an interesting point. There is no such thing as Tai Chi for cancer or any other health problem. Tai Chi is Tai Chi. What I teach in a class for 90-year-olds in a residential setting is the same as what I teach my younger students who study martial arts. That is not to say that there are not specific exercises for specific outcomes. In the main the exercises are the same. The difference is how you practice. Separating the students into similar levels makes it easier to teach, and easier to learn. Personally, I teach fully seated, part seated and standing classes. Classes run from 30 mins but most last an hour. This makes it easier to teach. More importantly, it makes it more comfortable for students.

Stage 2 - Join a Class

Then join the class and try a session. Prices vary, and you get what you pay for. Some may be supplemented by local authorities and charities. Expect to pay for your first session.

Teachers have their own methods and with experience they will have set up ways to make you comfortable and safe. Some teachers will get you to fill in PAR-Q forms (Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire), or at least talk to you about your specific health conditions. If you have any doubts about your ability, ask your health professional (GP or Consultant) if you are able to practice. Also, you should refrain from exercise after surgery until you are given the ‘all clear’, and in no case for less than 10 days. With COVID-19 there are new and ever-changing restrictions too.

See how you get on with the teacher. You don’t need to like him or her, but you do need to respect them. They will need to tell you to do difficult things, at the right time for you. They may be painfully honest at times. Classes should be friendly and non-competitive. Be patient but after several sessions, or if you just don’t like the vibe, it is ok to leave or change class. When you find the right class it may be a challenge but it should feel right.

See what the other students are like, they are the best indication of the skill of the teacher. Some classes are quiet, some are chatty. Be friendly, everyone in the room is there for similar reasons to you. It can be daunting at first but just relax and join in as you can.

You cannot get a taste by just watching. It looks easy and simple, until you do it. There may be some surprising muscle aches especially in the first few weeks. These will ease. There are three types of pain you may experience. Muscle ache is normal, try to work through it if you can. Just stop if it is too much. Sometimes you get a 'this is doing me good’ pain. This is known as ‘digging out’ in Chinese, the pain required to dig out an old tree stump. Again, if you can, work through it. The third type is when something is wrong. This could be pain in a joint or something that aggravates an existing condition. If this is the case, stop. Also stop if you get out of breath, that is always wrong. In any case do not be afraid to ask you teacher’s advice if you do not understand.

Whatever type of class you join, be clear that you will not be able to do everything in the first session. There is no stigma in making mistakes. In fact, most teachers will use one student’s mistake to help the whole class understand better. Your difficulty is a bonus for the class. Just do what you can and relax. Did I say that already?

What to expect

Tai Chi

This a martial art. Incredibly famous in China for keep active and flexible into old age. Exercises are generally circular and when standing often include weight shifting from leg to leg. In traditional classes, exercises may be repeated for twenty minutes or even longer. In seated and specialist classes, there will probably be a larger number of exercises with less repetition. In either case, exercises are done in a relaxed manner. Tai Chi often centres around a 'Form', which is a set routine to work your body and mind. There are many forms, and each teacher may use several. Long forms take up to 20 minutes to perform, Short and Small Circle forms from 2-8 minutes respectively. Traditionally each movement was taught individually. Not all classes will have a form as their focus.

Qi Gong

Qi Gong is a fairly new term encompassing a huge variety of practices and often follows the tradition of giving things great or explanatory names. 'Standing Like a Tree', 'White Crane' or 'Swimming Dragon' are examples. Even within schools different names occur, in the system I teach, the names Standing Like a Tree, Zhan Zhuang, Da Cheng Chuan and Yi Chuan are used interchangeably especially at the beginning stage. This style uses standing still as its main exercise. Others use specific movements or breathing and focus techniques.

Other systems

Dao Yin is the mother of most internal arts in China and includes exercise and self-massage. Some of these are quite specific in their use and often seemingly strange. It is best to try them before judging them. Internal arts rely on certain Chinese world views, known as the Three Treasures: Jing, Shen and Chi. Whilst Jing refers mostly to the physical, Shen refers to the mind, Chi has no direct translation in the West. It incorporates your emotional state, you natural and constitution, current health condition as well as your environmental situation. Seen in this way it is less mystical and it should be used as a tool for understanding processes that are happening.

Ba Duan Jin, the Eight Strand Brocade, is another famous exercise routine. It is so famous that there are statues of Buddha performing it. Nearly all Tai Chi and Qi Gong teachers will have at least a rudimentary understanding of this system.

What outcomes can you expect from Tai Chi and Qi Gong?

The physical benefits should start to become apparent after a few months. Although the journey usually starts with finding out what you can’t do, it soon changes. People often notice changes in balance, ability to perform previously difficult tasks and a feeling of lightness or ease. Other individually specific changes may also occur. Improvements in numb areas, circulation, warmth are common too. Do not expect miracles. Time will give you more understanding of the benefits. Many people come for one reason and stay for another.

In this art we work from where we are and try to improve. You may be given specific exercises for your condition. Even people with similar conditions may be given different routines. Usually these will need to be practiced daily at least. This may need to continue for as long as your condition does and more. Persistence is important but do discuss what happens, or does not, with your teacher.

You may also find just how tense you were before. A simple exercise like dropping the shoulders really can change how you feel and reduce stress. This is true for most of the practice. Try not to get hung up on doing it correctly; relaxing is doing it correctly. As you progress feedback from your body will give you insights into what is going on. It is easier to reduce stress and take a break earlier than wait until your emotions seem out of control and you feel you are drowning in them. This is also true for physical problems. Indeed, most teacher will have simple fixes for everyday problems which if done early enough can avoid discomforts. Things like nausea, breathlessness and muscle fatigue spring to mind. Find what works for you and use it. It will take experimentation and patience to work this out.

Meditation and Philosophy

Many teachers will also have experience and may teach Taoist or Buddhist meditation. This is a huge subject and draws a myriad of techniques. It should only be taught by competent people. Simple relaxation techniques and body scans can be used to re-set your mind. With practice you can deepen your understanding of what it is to be. Chinese philosophy: Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, have a rich history of psychological techniques to deal with all kinds of situations. At the basis of these is to relax and remain aware. As well as helping the living there are specific meditations to help end of life anxiety and the process of dying.

Like most things, there is an amount of trial and error in finding what works for you. All these arts have evolved over thousands of years in a continuing process of keeping what works and updating as new things emerge. Ultimately if it makes you feel better then do it. This feeling comes with a price, you must get up and do it.

Thankfully, you can relax as you do it. Or did I say that already?

Go to: Joy Parsons - learning Tai Chi with TNBC

Go to: George Cooper explains TCM and Accupuncture

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