As we age, we need to maintain strength, flexibility and endurance. This is sometimes difficult since we tend to become more sedentary as we get older. Unfortunately, our daily activities do not become easier, but stay constant. We all have a sense of what our daily activities are, even though they may vary somewhat from one home to the next. These activities are taken per granted when we are young, but as we age they use up more of our available energy resources, strength, and flexibility. There is also a greater potential for injury as a result of these necessary activities. At the extreme end, when we reach the later decades of life, just getting out of bed and walking can be a strenuous and taxing ordeal. For most of us, our physical capacities decrease as we get older, our activity levels lower, and our stress levels increase.
What are some of these daily activities? We run errands; we drive cars in stressful situations, work on the computer or at a desk, clean the house, cook, wash the laundry, look after our loved ones, shop for food and necessities, and work on our living spaces or gardens. In addition, we engage in social interactions, and recreational activities.
What do these activities have in common? We push, pull, and lift all types of objects. We stand, walk, climb stairs, and balance many hours per day. We reach for objects at the extreme end of our range. We reach way up, and far down for everyday things. We also, sit for many hours per day, whether we are driving, sitting at a work bench, a sewing machine, or a computer console.
How can we maintain the ability
to safely complete the requirements of daily living?
We need to have the strength to push, pull and lift things. We also need the flexibility to reach high and low. We want the leg strength, flexibility, and balance to walk, climb, lift, and stoop. The strength, flexibility, and body awareness to sit safely for many hours per day is also needed. We require the body control to assume safe static positions, as well as, body awareness and control while moving through our daily activities. We should also have the physical endurance to complete all of our daily activities.
Despite the fact that physical abilities decline with age, there is much we can do to slow down, or adapt to the decline. These adaptations are not always easy, but they are possible and within the reach of most of us. Tai Chi that is focused on the ability to carry out daily activities can help us to cope with these inevitable changes that result as part of the aging process. In this article we base our adaptations on Yang Tai Chi (Taijiquan), but other styles of Tai Chi can used to achieve similar results.
Yang style Tai Chi is one of the most practiced physical activities in the world. Its slow, powerful and controlled movements are familiar to many thousands of practitioners the world over. It is experienced by the young, middle aged, and the elder. It is practiced for its health benefits, self defense, sport, meditation, and as a way of centering the mind and body. The yang style started out as a martial way, but has evolved into a great exercise for promoting health and longevity. In the past it was combined with Chinese indigenous health methods, and as a result it not only became the supreme vehicle for self defense, but also for health development and maintenance. In China and many other places, practitioners rise daily with the sun to reap its physical and psychological benefits. It has, since its introduction to the west, also started to absorb some western principles of sport science and wellness. This absorption is not new, but it is part of the continuing process that started many centuries ago in ancient China.
Tai Chi has been successfully adapted to its health orientation; it can also be tailored to aid in the completion of daily activities. This revision is not difficult, since Tai Chi is based on sound physical and psychological principles. It must be mentioned at this point that there are many styles of Tai Chi, and numerous ways of practicing these styles. These Tai Chi systems often look different from the outside, but they are based on the same sound principles of body mechanics and mental training. Although, Tai Chi was created as a self defense system, its physical and mental principles are easily applied to cope with the rigors of daily activities. In self defense, as in any kind of work or activity involving the body, it is important to use gravity as an ally, and to train the body and mind to work together and efficiently. Efficiency in movement, relaxation, and proper posturing are the hallmarks of good Tai Chi training, as well as, the prerequisites of successful daily activity training.
So, what do activities like lifting a kettle, reaching for a box on a high shelf, and picking up a book from the floor, cleaning the bathroom, and carrying the laundry up the stairs have in common? How about any other of the necessary daily activities that we engage in? When we break down these activities into their component parts, we can see a number of basic elements. We sit, stand, walk, kneel, reach up, and reach down, stoop, climb, balance, push, pull, and lift daily from many different positions and orientations. We, not only, have to complete these basic elements, but we need to work efficiently and with proper body mechanics. To successfully complete these activities we need the appropriate levels of endurance and flexibility, the proper posture, strength, and the ability to control our bodies. Let's look at some of the requirements of efficient movement.
Keep the back straight and in a natural position (photo 1&2). Be especially careful with the lower back, do not force it into a position that is quite different from the original, or feels awkward and out of place. The head should be upright, it should feel as if it suspended from above. Avoid hyperextension of the neck, or the common neck forward position of the habitual desk worker (photos 3, 4, 5)
The shoulders should be in a natural position, not hunched forward as advocated by many practitioners or pulled way back (photos 6, 7, 8). Keep the chest in a relaxed and natural position. Avoid the chest out, as in standing at attention, or the caved in look. Keep the body relaxed and natural, and use only enough force to accomplish the job. Do not waste any effort or energy. Keep all body segments vertically aligned to decrease stress, and maintain comfort. This posture should serve as a starting point for all of your activities. Keep in mind that individual variations are quite common. It is up to the expert instructor to adapt the art to these differences in structure.
Since the trunk can only provide limited movement, it is up to the legs, hips, and feet to provide much of the mobility and stability for movements. The forward stance of the Yang style provides a suitable platform for movement. The weight distribution is about 60-70 percent in the front, and 30-40 percent in the back. The width of the base depends on the stability needed. The wider base provides more stability and facilitates smoother force generation. It is important not to allow too much weight over the front knee, and to decrease the time spent continuously in low squatting postures. It is unrealistic to think that we can avoid squatting all together, the idea is to minimize the amount of it, and to do it as correct as possible. These suggestions are in perfect harmony with Tai Chi principles (photos 9, 10, 11, 12). Stances from other Tai Chi styles may, in some cases, be used as substitutes for the Yang style front stance.
Quality of Movement
Inefficient movement can cause problems over time. It can lead to unnecessary tension, stress, stiffness and ineffective use of energy. It is especially important to increase efficiency as we age, since we no longer have the energy reserves enjoyed in our youth.
Following good movement principles, the body should be loose and relaxed when not engaging in heavy work. When heavy work is required, use only the amount of force needed with the appropriate body positions. Good movement comes from a good foundation. It is important for the movement coach to teach good mechanics in movement, and provide appropriate feedback as needed. Control of the breath can also be a great help with everyday activities. Paying attention to breathing can help us relax, and maintain proper arousal levels.
Daily Activities and Training
The following ideas can be incorporated into any Tai Chi class or individual exercise session. It is important to have a good grasp of the basics before embarking on these activities.
Proper Posture. As explained above the spine should be straight, with the head delicately balanced on top of the cervical spine. This posture is to be maintained, without much rigidity, while moving or standing still. This same posture is also used for pushing, pulling, and lifting. Remember to avoid puffing out your chest, or caving it in. Both of these extremes can cause physical problems in the future.
Appropriate Stance. The Yang style stance can be used for all movement and lifting. Other stances may work as well. The main idea is to have a stance that provides maximum stability, with the least amount of interference. The length, height, and width of the stance will vary with individuals, and the task being completed.
Balance Training. Movement repetition can assist greatly in building balance and confidence. Emphasizing balanced weight shifts can also lead to greater confidence in movement. It is also important to practice balancing on one leg under controlled conditions. Numerous activities incorporate one leg balance, such as climbing the stairs, and stepping out of the bathtub. In addition, the following exercises can accelerate improvement. Standing on one leg (photos 13, 14), side to side shift (Photos 15, 16, 17).
Leg Strength and Endurance. Practice the form continuously, emphasizing weight shifts, and maintaining balance throughout. Do the form slowly to build strength and endurance.
Flexibility. Perform flexibility exercises for all parts of the body. Maintain elasticity at the level necessary for healthy function. Do not overdo stretching. Pay special attention to the suppleness of the hips. Kneeling practice can help maintain a good level of flexibility in the average practitioner.
Reaching Practice. Practice reaching way down and way up while keeping a good posture and stance. Follow all other recommendations. Use a box to simulate reaching practice. Reaching for the box up high on a shelf, or down low under a table can make a realistic simulation (18, 19, and 20).
Tai Chi Walk. Tai Chi walking is a great way to practice good posture while moving. The exercise will not only build strength and endurance, but will also provide the foundation for proper Tai Chi technique.
Kneeling Practice. Practice kneeling on one knee at a time. This practice will improve strength and flexibility of the hips and lower extremities. Kneeling practice will provide the coach with an opportunity to help the student improve her kneeling technique. Use a soft mat or pad to kneel on. Do not overdo these exercises (photos 21, 22).
Tai Chi Push. Use the Tai Chi push to develop good pushing technique. Observe the proper use of stance and posture while pushing. (Photos 23, 24).
Tai Chi Pull. Similar to pushing; learn to shift the body weight while using proper technique. Both pushing and pulling are basic techniques of Tai Chi. (photos 25, 26).
Lifting Practice. Using the proper stance and posture, lift a box, or a ball from the floor to waist height, then lower to the floor using proper technique. (photos 27, 28, 29)
Developing a Base. Many of the activities we engage in daily rely on having a strong and flexible base. This enhanced base can be developed with the Tai Chi auxiliary exercises, and the constant repetition of the formal exercise.
The above suggestions are only a few and can be expanded on depending on individual need. Most of them will not make the practice look any different than any other Tai Chi practice, but should focus the practitioner more towards daily activities. Keeping the emphasis on daily activities will prepare the practitioner to tackle those tasks that she will encounter on a day to day basis. This is especially important as we age, and we decrease our overall physical activity levels. Because of the many individual variations and special needs, it would be beneficial to enlist the help of a competent instructor to personalize some of the suggestions mentioned in this article. A competent instructor can help the practitioner realize these adaptations in a safe and efficient manner. There is no deviation from the Tai Chi principles when emphasizing Tai Chi for daily activities. In fact, the health benefits are preserved, as well as, the basics for a strong self defense practice.
Rene Changsut M.S.T.,R.K.T. is the founder of the Portland Kung Fu Club. A registered therapist with extensive experience in Therapeutic Exercise, Biomechanics, and Rehabilitation. He has trained over 40 years in the martial arts. He has lectured extensively on Kinesiology, Biomechanics, and Adult Fitness. Sifu Changsut has studied the Wu, Chen, and Yang styles of Tai Chi Chuan. He is also an expert in Wing Chun and Northern Shaolin Kung Fu. Sifu Changsut has taught in the University, Medical, and Martial Arts School settings. Copyright ©2010, Rene Changsut.
Repinted from Qi Journal, Winter 2010-2011 issue