T’ai chi is a wonderfully gentle form of movement and exercise that can be appropriate to all levels of physical ability. It can also result in increased energy levels which are particularly noticeable if your energy levels are low in the first place. T’ai chi along with Chinese medicine (and a number of other alternative health models) is based on the belief that good health results form a balanced flow of energy (chi) along our bodies many energy channels (meridians). Ill health results from imbalances and blockages within the system. Chinese medicine, Acupuncture, Shiatsu and T’ai chi all aim to redress these blockages and imbalances.
I became attracted to viewing health in these terms when it became clear that modern medicine had little to offer me with this illness. What did I have to lose by trying out a different health paradigm? After all, the Chinese had been using this system for thousands of years. I now practise T’ai chi every morning when I get up because of how well it works for me. If nothing else it’s an achievable form of gentle exercise that gets my circulatory systems flowing. But I’m also convinced that it improves my energy levels and it has been pivotal to my learning to approach life in an effortless manner. For me effortlessness is the key to avoiding overdoing things. I also believe that as an attitude it helps to keep my sympathetic nervous system in balance, minimising symptoms at many levels. When I first started T’ai chi I was more or less house bound, but the immediate small improvements in my energy became a spring board for other small improvements to my health that little by little rippled out until I eventually made a full recovery.
The first part of a T’ai chi session is always a warm up which involves moving all your joints, the parts of the body where energy blockages are most likely to form. I believe that a gentle T’ai chi warm up is the ideal form of movement to start the day for anyone with this condition. Most of these movements can be adapted to be performed lying down or sitting.
I would definitely recommend a Tai chi class for anyone well enough to move around a little. Once you learn a ‘form’, a series of linked gentle movements aimed to increase the flow of your energy, you could practise this first thing in the morning on a daily basis too. I feel confident that you will notice sufficient benefit to want to continue to practise! However one type of T’ai chi that I do not think is appropriate for people suffering with this illness is qigong. In this practise each movement that aims to increase the flow of energy to a particular body part is repeated many times. Repetitive muscle use is not advised for sufferers of ME/CFS. (I once attended a qigong class when I was in a relatively advanced stage of recovery but I could not keep up with the rest of the class which had an average age of about 65. The next day I had seized up all over!) The great thing about a T’ai chi form is that the movement is constantly in flow, so that each muscle group is never used in a particular way for more than a second, before the effort changes direction and you move onto another muscle group. When looking for a T’ai chi class talk to the instructor about whether it involves qigong or other repetitive movements. Let them know that you have this illness and what it means for your muscles and physical ability.
There are many different types of T’ai chi. I practise the Lee family style which is based firmly in Taoist philosophy and seems to me, to offer the most balanced approach to improving health. Unfortunately I have found that classes of this style are only taught in certain pockets of the UK. Some of these classes also teach the martial arts associated with Tai chi, sometimes giving little time to the health giving aspects, so always talk to the teacher about the class beforehand. (Once after moving cities, I went to a class that seemed to be all about rolling on the ground and playing with sticks and had little to do with the classes that had made such a great contribution to the first improvements to my health!). The following is a list of organisations that teach the Lee Family Style in the UK: