Tai Chi and Multiple Sclerosis

Restoring a Sense of Balance and Strength

By Karen Thaxton

journal-25_page70_image1I have MS (multiple sclerosis), which has negatively affected my sense of balance and control of my right leg. However, I now regularly practice Tai Chi, and Tai Chi has at least partially restored my sense of balance, control of my right leg, and self- confidence.

When I was finally diagnosed with MS nearly ten years ago, I had already realized that something was wrong. My body, which had done nearly everything I’d ever wanted it to do for so many years, now was not nearly so obedient. My right leg wouldn’t function properly, preventing me from running 10K’s or even a few steps. When I was tired, the foot would flop and drag, so that even walking became a chore, leading to stumbling and lurching—at times I looked like I was drunk. Worse, my sense of balance was rapidly fading, leaving me to fall if I tilted a few degrees from the perpendicular. I experienced several bad falls, both at home and outdoors while hiking. I couldn’t even shower without holding onto the shower wall for balance. The actual diagnosis of MS led initially to a real sense of betrayal, in addition to outrage and helplessness. I didn’t look old or weak, but I moved as though I were both elderly and weak. I felt that my horizons were becoming prematurely limited, and I lost my self-confidence as well.

Two years ago I decided it was up to me to stop, or at least delay, the impact of MS on my body, since there is no cure. While one can’t control the progression of MS, I figured that there must be something I could do to regain or compensate for some of the abilities I had lost. I tried yoga—that was out, because of my balance problems. I tried Pilates–that was great for core strength, but I couldn’t control my right leg in the mat exercises. I tried the treadmill and some other machines— they didn’t address balance, although they did help with endurance.

Finally I enrolled in Dave Barrett’s Tai Chi class, only because there wasn’t anything else available at that hour. Although I had tried Tai Chi several times before, it always seemed more like a dance class than anything else. Dave’s class was a revelation. It was a tough discipline, a form of meditation, and a real workout from the first day. My legs ached. I could neither Row the Boat nor do the Cat Walk. I couldn’t even do a proper bow stance. There was no way I could transfer weight smoothly from one leg to another. For someone who had practiced karate (and ballet, running and aerobic dance, etc.), this inability to reach perfection in a seemingly simple discipline was a surprise. My competitive nature took over—there was no way I was not going to be able to master Tai Chi. But I still had to start by “mastering” the bow stance without wobbling.

Tai Chi is not easy. But by concentrating on the mechanics of Tai Chi, first practicing the postures, and then very gradually being able to string them together into the long form, I was also slowly improving both my balance and my leg strength, although I didn’t realize it at the beginning. I know that “Life is short, Tai Chi is long”, but consistent Tai Chi practice has already led to major benefits for me. Incidentally, not all benefits are physical— just being in a class with other motivated students, realizing they are supportive and non-competitive, has been a morale booster as well. Until reading Holly Sweeney-Hillman’s commentary on “The Nature of Balance and the Practice of Tai Chi Chuan”, I had not thought about the actual progression of the improvement I experienced as a result of Tai Chi. Specifically, her reference to the three interrelated types of balance (static, dynamic and adaptive) describes the sequence that I seem to have followed, although I hadn’t analyzed it at the time.

My static balance improvement became noticeable when I slowly began to “master” the bow stance. Initially I had to look down at my feet to be able to tell where they were, and I couldn’t hold the bow stance for very long without tilting or wobbling. As my leg strength improved, however, so did my balance. Rowing the Boat was extremely difficult for me when my right foot was leading, and it took a year until I was able to row with some degree of control. Other postures became steadier, too, including White Crane Spreads its Wings, Single Whip, and Needle at Sea Bottom. Once I attained the postures, I could hold them steadily and concentrate on form.

Next came various transition movements and the Cat Walk (dynamic balance), at which I’m still making progress. At first I could not move from one leg to another in a cat-like manner. And moving into postures such as High Pat the Horse felt awkward. It took nearly a year and a half for me to understand the principle of weight transfer, and then to internalize Dave’s voice coaching “heel, to ball, to toe” or “weight over the bubbling well point”. (And it takes a patient Tai Chi instructor to let this understanding slowly evolve on the part of his students.) After two years, I’m at the point where I can often perform the Cat Walk, although looking like a clumsy cat much of the time. Because I do understand the principle of the various transition movements, I can now concentrate on achieving them smoothly. I had to think deliberately about when and how to transfer weight before I could do it without lurching, or without always thinking about it.

Finally I progressed to adaptive balance skills, and some of this I attribute again to Dave’s voice. For example, I have been working with a personal trainer to increase overall strength, balance and flexibility. Initially, I could not do lunges at all. As my Tai Chi skills increased, so did my ability to reach a lunge position and hold it. Only two months ago I finally was able to begin the challenge of taking lunge-steps the entire length of the gym floor. However, the lunges were wobbly and I wasn’t able to transfer weight smoothly until that internalized voice talking about “heel, to ball, to toe” and “bubbling well point,” helped guide those lunges. Now I can lunge-step across the entire floor without even thinking about it.

Further examples of adaptive balance include my new-found ability to descend flights of stairs without clutching the railing (although I do need to keep in contact with the railing to know which way is up). This is weight-shifting at its best for me, especially since now I can descend the stairs of the Paris metro without panic. I can stand in the shower and move to reach the soap or shampoo without holding on to the wall. When I walked in Portland’s recent snow, I was able to weight-shift gradually from one foot to another without falling once. And I can walk across the living room floor, full coffee cup in hand, without spilling one drop. All of these are skills that I’d never had to think about in the past. But the Tai Chi principles I’ve learned in class, and have at least partially internalized, are now guiding me in everyday movements, those very movements I’d NEVER had to think about before. In new situations (as in walking on wet leaves), I sometimes need to concentrate on weight shifting, but there are times when I realize that I haven’t even thought about a new task requiring balance yet have performed it successfully.

I have just reread the first paragraph of Holly Sweeney-Hillman’s paper, and I feel it could have been written about me. Initially I had to invest “great effort, concentration and practice in learning uprightness” during Tai Chi practice and in small tasks, but my balance and ability to function have noticeably improved and are continuing to improve, even though my MS has not diminished. I have regained my confidence in my own body, and I relish new tasks and adventures. My personal trainer has noticed the improvement in strength and balance and is constantly coming up with new exercises for me to perform, none of which I would ever have thought about attempting before I began Tai Chi practice. And, finally, my neurologist has noticed such an improvement that he is now recommending Tai Chi to some of his other MS patients.

Tai Chi is not a cure for MS (there is no cure for MS), but faithful Tai Chi practice can definitely lead to an improvement in both balance and leg strength, which in turn leads to a noticeable improvement in physical skills, everyday functioning, and morale and self-confidence. I may never be able do Right or Left Separation kicks, but I’m able to be a Golden Rooster standing on my left leg, and almost a Golden Rooster standing on my right leg. I urge others with balance problems to begin to practice Tai Chi. And don’t give up—it takes quite a while to see improvement, but you will be surprised and pleased with these vital skills that you can relearn.

Reprinted from Journal 25, Tenth Anniversary Issue, Summer 2009

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