Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tai chi aids emotional, physical well-being of disabled participants

From the San Jose Mercury News:

Knees apart and shoulders back, wheelchairs steady, a circle of students hovers their palms above their laps like yogis.
In tandem, their wrists draw slow, elegant hoops in the air before returning to their laps.

"You're just floating in a sea of chi," reminds the instructor. "Imagine you're kelp in the Monterey Bay, moving effortlessly."
Once practiced in secret by Chinese martial arts masters, tai chi has found a new, unlikely batch of disciples: paraplegics.

Every Monday afternoon, a handful of people roll, hobble and shuffle to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center to learn an ancient art that students say reduces pain, steadies their balance and makes them feel happy.

"You're not going to be able to kung fu people with this class," says instructor Darlene Karasik, a nurse who discovered tai chi helped ease her arthritis pain. "Your best self-defense might be putting people to sleep."

Tai chi, known for its meditative qualities and slow, gentle movements, can improve health, doctors say. It increases upper body strength, improves flexibility and balance, reduces pain from arthritis and lowers blood pressure, according to a number of studies.

Valley Medical Center had already offered regular tai chi classes, but altered some moves last fall so patients can do it sitting down, hoping the seated version might provide the same benefits, said rehabilitation physician Dr. Kazuko Shem. She's enrolled six participants

in a study tracking pain, emotional well-being and mental focus over the course of 12 weeks.

For patients with spinal cord injuries—about 475 at Valley Medical alone—exercise options are slim, and most are done alone. Patients with spinal cord injuries are more likely to be depressed, and Shem hopes that tai chi, which is often done in a group, will help them feel more "emotionally connected."

"There aren't that many group activities," said Shem, "but a tai chi class is almost like going to the gym."
Indeed, there are more smiles every week, says instructor Karasik. She watched camaraderie grow within a tai chi class of three quadriplegics last fall.

"When they come to class, I watch them relax, get more peaceful," said Karasik.

Charles Hanks, 69, lives in Campbell and takes public paratransit to tai chi. He's not paralyzed, but he can't walk more than 75 yards before sharp pain shoots up his calves because of an artery disease he attributes to smoking four packs of Pall Malls a day. Before a friend harangued him into attending his first tai chi class at a senior center eight years ago, he was physically drained and mentally blue.

"My balance had gone to hell. I was depressed, getting more depressed," says Hanks, who now attends both seated and standing tai chi classes at Valley Medical. "But now it's all coming back."

His disease has not progressed, which he attributes to tai chi.

Others are new to the practice.

Lawrence Viariseo (pictured) has been wheelchair-bound since a skiing accident in the early 1980s paralyzed him from the knees down, but he still considers himself a jock. He does push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and yoga. And now, tai chi?

"I rolled my eyes, I have to admit," says Viariseo. "It's just not something I would do, so holistic. But I'm always pleased. I like it."