Tai Chi and Aging – Spring 2018
This article was initiated by Cathy Cody, expanded upon by the 8th level, filled out further by discussion at the winter trainings in 2018 and written up by Margaret Olmsted.
There are many benefits that come with aging. Among them are increased wisdom and ease with life. Also, many senior citizens are partially or completely retired and are exploring new activities and freedoms. They may show up in your classes.
Often, with aging come increased physical challenges. Aging, or any disability or injury, brings us in touch with the fact that our bodies are not perfect. As the teachers of our school age, we ourselves are experiencing challenges in our bodies that we did not face in our 20s and 30s. And as the baby boomers age, we are also seeing these challenges in our students. As we grow older, we all need to become aware of these things and use our accumulated experience to learn how to deal with these issues compassionately, both within ourselves and with our students.
Below are some of the issues that have been noticed, followed by advice for us as we age and finally a section with advice on how to teach older students.
ISSUES THAT HAVE BEEN NOTICED
- Progressive neuropathy manifesting in pain, numbness and burning, can interfere with rooting, relaxing and balance.
- Arthritis, causing pain due to structure changes between the bones of the feet or toes (toes may crisscross) not allowing spread of weight through the foot for balance and flow of chi from heel through big toe.
- Plantar fasciitis, as well as pain due to the thinning of the cushioning layer of fat on the sole of the foot.
- Bunions corns, heel spurs, ingrown toe nails, collapsed arches
- Heavy orthopedic shoes in seniors that make it difficult to close the foot
- Stiffness, lack of flexibility
- Shooting pains
- Some suggestions for feet and ankles
- Stretch out/splay the toes in the mornings before doing tai chi
- Try putting spacers between the toes
- Stand on one leg and step with the other foot on a tennis ball and massage the bottom of the foot. You may need to hold on to something
- Stiffness and aching
- Structural changes from misuse, overuse or arthritis
- Difficulty sinking, squatting, and inability to sit on the floor and get back up again
- Structural changes causing problems with alignment, like keeping the knee over foot and pointing straight ahead (not caving inward or outward), pronation
- Bakers cysts
- Needing more time to recover from injury or surgery
- One suggestion:
- The knee massage
- Pain and weakness in hip(s) when walking too far or standing (or sitting) too long
- Sudden inability to stand or walk due to hip misalignment
- Hip replacements, bone spurs
- A suggestion
- Wood/gallbladder qigong massage
- Weak legs, varicose veins, muscle cramps
- Can’t walk far, or stand up all day at a training (or even for an hour of class)
- Balance problems, making shoulder width and long steps both unrealistic and inappropriate
- Some suggestions for legs
- Roll out the quads in the morning with a rolling pin or similar device
- Stretch out the quads before going up or down stairs
- Go down stairs or paths in serpentine manner
Back and shoulders
- Tendency for seniors to walk with a slight bend forward and with the head looking down and then arching the back to compensate. Developing a dowager’s hump.
- Posture slumped forward from years of computer work (or playing instruments, etc.)
- Osteopenia and osteoporosis, spinal compression and herniated disks
- Dealing with disease and structural changes
- Recovering from surgery, stroke, heart attack, broken bones, etc.
- Parkinsons, Demantia, Alzheimers
- Stroke, cancer
- Side effects (for example dizziness or instability) from medicines
- General weakness or atrophy
- Loss of ability to find or keep one’s balance
- Loss of ability to concentrate, absorb new things or even remember what one already knows
- Unable to deal with cold or hot climates or environments
- Reduced ability to hear, which can make it hard to learn in class
- Loss of vision; progressive glasses affecting posture
Head and Heart (mental emotional)
- Not comfortable traveling (to trainings)
- Shame at aging body
- Fear of falling
- Giving up hope of any possible progress or growth, or of keeping up
ADVICE FOR YOU AND YOUR STUDENTS
Be here now
Listen to your body and what you can do right now, in this moment. Not what you used to be able to do. Not what you could do yesterday. Not what you think you can do or would like to be able to do. Focus on what you can do right now.
Recognize your worth
Recognize that you have a body, but that your worth is not determined by your body’s abilities.
Be patient with yourself
It can be frustrating to recover from injury or to feel your body aging and unable to do what it used to be able to do. Aging is very humbling. We have to learn to accept the limits of our capacity. And doing more tai chi, gently and with relaxation, always helps.
Use your breath to relax and center yourself.
Use it or lose it: Move your body
As we age we get stiffer faster and take longer to recover. It may take longer to return to relaxation and root if you skip a few days for illness or laziness or whatever. So we have to keep doing tai chi daily. Even if you’re young, don’t stop doing tai chi! And the older you get, the more you need!
Take walks. Regular exercise circulates the qi and is also good for the brain. Build up your strength slowly if you are in recovery.
Stretch gently and in motion. Holding static stretches will not open joints and can damage muscles.
If you feel stiff in the morning, it may be advisable to start with Qigong or the 8 Ways. Allow your body to let go of its sleepiness and return to a relaxed, looser state. The same may be true before classes or before bed. (We have always presented these practices as tools for our students when they have difficulty with the entire tai chi form; we need to keep them in mind for ourselves as well.)
Listen to your body as you deal with pain
Pain can be very scary. Distinguishing the pain of growth from the pain of overuse or injury can be challenging. Chronic pain can be debilitating and depressing. Sitting around and resting is good up to a point, but sitting around too long leads to stiffness and weakness.
Walk slowly and gently and with full consciousness. Try not to favor an injury (by leaning or limping) as it can distort the rest of your body and bring further imbalances.
Ice on injuries is recommended by many and refuted by others. The recommended amount is no more than 20 minutes, 3 times/day. Icing too long can be injurious. It is generally recommended for more acute injuries.
Heat can be helpful, especially in more chronic conditions. But everyone is different. What works for you?
There are lots of natural anti-inflammatory creams and gels. Homeopathic Arnica remedies help some. Ibuprofen helps others. CBD oils have been found to reduce pain.
Massage, chiropractic, acupuncture, physical therapy and other therapeutic care can help some people but can be pricey. If you are over 65, some places offer reduced prices for seniors or take Medicare.
If you have senior citizens in your class, don’t assume they have physical issues. It’s always a good idea to ask students to let you know, either in front of the group or on the side, what issues may affect their learning tai chi. Many senior centers welcome tai chi teachers and the students will have a wide range of abilities.
We need to emphasize the quality of quiet principled movement instead of getting caught up in striving for exact goals. It is more important to be relaxed and aligned than to use any force in order to try to achieve external goals. We all need to find and work within our own range of motion.
So, be patient with yourself and your students.
Many of us have found that senior students have difficulty learning the form. These students benefit can benefit from focusing on the principles and from different options in learning:
- A slower pace for learning the form, with more emphasis and time spent on principles like relaxation and less on learning new moves
- Qigong and/or the 8 Ways as a warm up, interspersed in the course or as a separate course
- Meditation and breathing
- Seated tai chi
A number of teachers have found that a combination of all of these can benefit not only senior students but also those students who can’t make it to class every week.
Experienced teachers can be flexible and come up with other creative ways of teaching by taking the students capabilities into consideration. For instance, it can be helpful to adjust the width and length of a student’s steps or to encourage a student to take smaller steps, work a bit higher, or come out of position sooner. Other options include adjustment steps, walking around instead of spinning, or adjusting the height or position of an arm for shoulder problems.
Senior and injured students may have more difficulty with balance and may require an even more gentle touch when adjusted.
Having a chair nearby for sitting if legs get fatigued or if required for balance can be helpful.
For any partner exercises that require squatting, a chair can be used instead of squatting.
Team teaching is valuable; take advantage of it. Process with your teaching partners if you have limitations in what you can do or demonstrate, and plan how to present the material in class.
Be open with your students about your limitations at any given time, but don’t let the focus of the class or the exercise become about how difficult it is.
Students who wear special shoes or have orthotics can put socks on over their shoes so they can close their feet more easily.
We have all found that tai chi is a wonderful asset in our lives. And we all love to teach and help others benefit from tai chi. Dealing with changing bodies, both our own and those of our students, presents challenges. As your understanding grows, we hope you will share your wisdom with others at trainings, in blog articles and in conversations with fellow teachers.