My Journey to Tai Chi-Qigong
In December 2012, I was meeting with my doctor at the University Of Arizona Integrated Health Center in Phoenix, and I explained to her the challenges I was having with the accumulated effects and progressive symptoms of my MS. I was having difficulties with fatigue, an unsteady gait, balance challenges, increased cognitive issues, and memory loss to the point where I had difficulty finding my way home when walking around my neighborhood of 25 years. In addition, I was having lower back pain from a severe spinal stenosis that was diagnosed and was putting pressure on my spinal cord nerves. Although I was alarmed by the progression of my symptoms, I wanted to continue with a natural healing approach in lieu of prescription medications if possible. My doctor looked at me and told me that I might want to consider Tai Chi. She told me the integrated health center offered a weekly Tai Chi-Qigong class. At first I was hesitant to try this in a public setting. I was self-conscious of my unsteady gait, cognitive memory issues with trying to learn new information, and balance challenges. Seven days later, I attended my first class and started my ongoing journey with Tai Chi-Qigong.
I met the instructor, Don Fiore, prior to the beginning of the class and discussed my challenges with balance, cognition, and coordination with him. Don listened and was very supportive and encouraged me to give the class a go. As the class got underway, I quickly experienced Don’s philosophy of creating a relaxing, non-threatening, and very positive environment. This was ideal for me as even the basic Tai Chi-Qigong movements of shifting one’s weight forward and back from right leg to left leg required a great deal of concentration.
Most people take the complexity of walking for granted, for me walking takes a little more concentration.
As I persistently worked my way through a few of the initial classes during the next few weeks, I started to develop a deeper appreciation for the integration of meditative breathing and slow movement. I began to practice every day at home utilizing Don’s instructional DVDs while also participating in a weekly class. As I became more comfortable with the basic movements that I followed along with on the DVD in my living room, I would then go outside and practice in my backyard.
As I began to learn and build confidence with the easy Tai Chi movements, I started to attend other classes that Don was teaching throughout Phoenix. After a few months, Don invited me to attend one of the intermediate T’ai Chi Kung classes that he was teaching. I was hesitant to attend the class due to my balance challenges; however, with Don’s encouragement, I gave it a try. This was an even bigger challenge as the moves and flow in the intermediate class were more complex and required a higher degree of balance, coordination, and cognition—none of which were areas of confidence for me at the time. I continued to build confidence as I attended the classes and practiced daily at home. Although I struggled with the basics, I kept on practicing everyday along with the instructional DVDs. Over the next 12 months, my daily practice sessions grew to include a Qigong warm up, Easy Tai Chi, and T’ai Chi Kung. My Tai Chi practice started out at 45 minutes and has evolved into a 2-hour daily routine.
Shortly after starting to practice Tai Chi, I began to realize an improvement in my balance and mental clarity, and I was better able to manage the lower back pain from the spinal stenosis. My ability to perform these routines is a testimony to the benefits of daily practice. Even when traveling, camping, or hiking I like to find a stream or a nice scenic spot to practice.
As I continued to become more familiar with the basic movements and the benefits of Tai Chi, I became increasingly more dedicated to developing a good practice form by integrating the mind, body, and meditative aspects of Tai Chi. As I mentioned previously, I was concerned about the progression of my MS symptoms and wanted to be strong in my conviction to a natural approach to my health care. This was a major motivator for my dedication to Tai Chi. I knew I always had the option of various prescription medications; however, I wanted to continue a course of natural healing.
Over the course of many years of navigating and taking responsibility for my MS and interfacing with many physicians, I have come to realize there is a medication for every medical symptom; however, not every medical symptom needs a prescription.
In June 2013, I read The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi and the research on Tai Chi health benefits.
As I read the Harvard Medical School research findings and, specifically, the benefits of improved balance and cognitive clarity, I was wowed. I had not fully understood some of the subtle and incremental benefits I was experiencing as I practiced the slow movements of Tai Chi. The more I read the findings described from the Harvard research, the more excited I got about seeing the connections between the research and my own experiences—these were my aha moments. I began to recognize the benefits: I was walking straighter, stumbling less, responding more quickly, and it was getting easier to process and understand new information. I was able to keep my spine flexible, which resulted in less acute lower back pain and I continued to avoid prescription pain medications. I realized, as verified by the Harvard research, that my mind was subconsciously making adjustments that would offset a potential stumble or dropping mishap. I was not dropping items out of my hand as often and my reflexes were quicker and compensating to prevent a mishap. I found myself catching an item before it would fall from my hand and I was amazed at the improved quickness and agility in my response time. I realized improvement in my mental clarity and cognition, and I was no longer getting confused when walking around the neighborhood.
At the beginning of my Tai Chi-QiGong lessons, I was not able to do the balance movements that required lifting one leg off the ground (e.g., Crane Pose, Crane Walk, Marionette, Snake Tongue). Now I can do these moves. My Crane Pose and Crane Walk may not be as stunning or pretty as a crane in flight, but it is pretty exciting for me.
In June 2014, I came up with an idea: I wondered if I could be a Tai Chi instructor. This would allow me to continuously improve and fine-tune my practice. It also meant that I could share the benefits of Tai Chi and be a supportive resource or advocate for others with similar physical or neurological challenges. At first I was hesitant to contact my Tai Chi instructor, Don, about the possibilities of becoming an instructor, as I was still self-conscious of my physical and cognitive challenges. I wondered if becoming an instructor was a realistic goal. I remember doubting if I could complete the teachers training certificate requirements and having fears about learning how to do mirror image poses for a class.
On June 18, 2014, I wrote Don an e-mail asking about the possibilities of becoming a Tai Chi instructor for both Easy Tai Chi-Qigong and T’ai Chi Kung.
I have been a little reluctant to approach you on this item of becoming an instructor due to some of my challenges with MS; however, over the past two years I have built up some confidence in my practice and decided to approach you on the topic as you have been so great both live and using your DVDs. I even think my challenges could be a benefit as I can relate to the actual before and after as demonstrated by my personal progress.
One item that I do need to ask is if the mirror imaging is a show stopper to potentially become an instructor and certified by you as given the combined balance and cognitive challenge of the MS this may not be possible. So if there is some leeway for the mirror imaging that would be great and make the possibility of becoming an instructor a little more realistic for me.
I conveyed to Don that I was hesitant to approach him on this topic due to some of my challenges, but since January 2012, I had built confidence in my practice, which is what helped me decide to approach him. I thought my health challenges and the positive results I achieved through Tai Chi could be a benefit for others. After all, I was the living proof of the potential before-and-after results. I have mentioned that I was most concerned about being able to learn how to mirror image (my right = your left) Tai Chi when in front of a class and whether that would be a deal breaker for competing the certification program. I was hoping there was some leeway for the mirror image requirement, because this would make it more realistic for me to complete the certification program. In addition to being uncomfortable with the prospect of mirror imaging the Easy Tai Chi program, I also had anxiety about learning the regular routines and flow.
I was excited when I received a call from Don with words of encouragement. Don told me he was excited that I wanted to become a Tai Chi-Qigong instructor and how powerful and beneficial it would be for others based on my personal journey with MS and Tai Chi. He encouraged me to work on the mirror imaging because, although it was not a requirement for certification, it would help in the brain and coordination. Over the next 6 months, I spent many hours practicing my routine and the mirror image process to prepare for the teachers certification demonstration, and now it is included as part of my daily routine. I finally grew comfortable with mirror imaging, and it was an exciting accomplishment especially in terms of improved cognition
The journey of becoming an instructor has not always been easy. Particularly, there were many challenges in remembering and orchestrating the moves. In order to improve my routine and prepare for the certification I increased my focus on small details and I developed a text guide to complement Don’s DVDs. This required scripting every word from both the Easy Tai Chi-Qigong and Tai Chi Kung DVDs. It took me hours of listening, writing, and re-listening to make sure I had every detail of the DVDs on paper to help with my study and practice. Scripting the DVDs and journaling about my Tai Chi practice helped commit the moves to memory.
Developing the guides was instrumental in committing the movements to memory and to overcome the MS cognitive and balance/coordination challenges of processing new information and converting it into a physical action
Though I had initially considered mirror imaging as an unachievable challenge, it eventually became a normal flow. Although the repetitiveness was great for learning, it was also quite frustrating because of the number of hours it took to learn and remember the basics. One of the motivators for me was that I was continuously learning and improving along the path toward my ultimately goal of being an instructor.
I am proud to say that on January 2, 2015, I successfully completed the training certification program and demonstration. Don congratulated me and told me I was the first student to complete both the Easy Tai Chi-Qigong and T’ai Chi Kung certifications at the same time.
It has been an exciting journey from my first Easy Tai Chi class in January 2012 to completing the training and certificate program. The journey of being introduced to and making Tai Chi-Qigong an integrated part of my life has been a godsend.
The benefits I gained from Tai Chi were a result of a willingness to try something new and were a testament to how a little dedication can go a long way. The blending of Don’s supportive and non-threatening approach along with my dedicated practice made for a great team accomplishment. I viewed many Tai Chi videos with practitioners who are able to do Tai Chi gracefully without issues and have also observed, while shadow teaching with Don, those who have various challenges who do modified movements while standing and in wheel chairs. Truly, the benefits of Tai Chi are possible for everyone.
People have said to me that Tai Chi looks hard, and I smile and say that the beauty of Tai Chi is that it is adaptable for people of all ages, body types, and physical challenges. The hardest part of Tai Chi, I tell others, is that you have to go slow.
I have developed my routine and I love to practice in the privacy of my backyard, which has become my sanctuary. I have integrated Tai Chi into my daily lifestyle, and I have even been observed doing the Tree Sway on my front porch while waiting for the pizza delivery or in the exam room while waiting for the Doctor.
Now I look back and smile about my journey from my first Tai Chi class to completing the training certification and having the bragging rights for my Crane Pose. I look forward to continuing to develop my Tai Chi-Qigong practice and to my ongoing journey of telling my story and being a resource for others.
As mentioned previously, I developed a detailed text guide to complement the Easy Tai Chi-Qigong and the intermediate T’ai Chi Kung DVDs. The guides were instrumental in committing the movements to memory and learning Tai Chi. Don Fiore was unbelievably gracious in his ongoing support to help as many people as possible and in giving me permission to publish the text guide companions to the DVD on my website. I hope the guides will be resources that support anyone as they develop their individual Tai Chi practice. I also encourage those practicing and developing their daily Tai Chi program to seek out a local Tai Chi class in the community after becoming familiar and comfortable with the basics of Tai Chi.
 Wayne, Peter M., and Mark Fuerst. The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi: 12 Weeks to a Healthy Body, Strong Heart, and Sharp Mind. Boston: Shambhala, 2013. Print.