Balanced therapy

Saturday, March 31, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:37 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008
Clockwise from bottom left: Peggy Baum, Kay Wright, Sandy Matsuda and Ichiro Matsuda meditate at the beginning of their tai chi practice in the Eldercare Center. Wright said since she started practicing tai chi last year, her health has improved.

Kay Wright is turning 64 this year and is laden with a host of health problems.

“The list is so long, where do you want me to start?” she asked.

Learn about tai chi

  • Internationally recognized tai chi master Yang Yang will lead a demonstration tailored to people older than 50 at 8:30 a.m. Friday at the Armory Sports Center, 701 E. Ash St.
  • There will also be a presentation and demonstration on the physical and psychological effects of tai chi on older adults at 4 p.m. Friday in the atrium of Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center at MU.
  • Both events are free and open to the public.
  • The events are in conjunction with a sold-out three-day workshop sponsored by the MU School of Health Professions and Multicultural Center.
  • Registration for the workshop is sold out, but there are still available spots in the world fusion music concert and healing sound workshop led by erhu virtuoso Yang Ying.
  • For more information, go to or call Mary Cruise, 228-4415, or Sandy Matsuda, 884-7312.

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Some of Wright’s more serious problems include degeneration of her lower back vertebrae and fibromyalgia, a condition that causes her muscles to ache. She also has restless leg syndrome, which she describes as a feeling of ants crawling between the muscle fibers in her legs every time she relaxes them.

Wright said her health conditions took a turn for the better a year ago when she enrolled in a tai chi class at the suggestion of the instructor for her arthritis exercise class. She is now able to sit for longer periods of time and credits the weekly exercises for strengthening her muscles, reducing her pain and keeping her spine in better alignment.

Wright sees tai chi as a form of moving meditation.

“I was hooked from day one because of the calmness, the slow movements and sense of peace,” she said. “An added bonus is that my balance has improved dramatically.”

Health professionals continue to find uses for this traditional discipline that originated as a form of martial arts in China about 350 years ago according to written records. The therapeutic application of tai chi, especially for older adults, will be the focus of a three-day workshop Friday through April 8.

By mid-March, the workshop had reached its 60-person limit.

“We’re having health professionals and students of all ages coming from Canada, Florida, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Maine, the Mayo Clinic, as well as a large contingent of locals,” organizer Sandy Matsuda said. “It is a community-campus event with lots of sponsorship.”

Workshop participants will include Charles Neville, a jazz saxophonist with the Neville Brothers, who will be performing in a concert that’s part of the workshop.

Neville began practicing tai chi 20 years ago for its health benefits. He was involved in an automobile accident three years ago and sustained a neck injury.

“The doctors were amazed by my swift recovery,” he said. “I think my injuries would have been more serious if I didn’t practice tai chi.”

Interest in tai chi for therapy is part of a growing cross-fertilization of ideas from the East and West, Matsuda said.

As a faculty member in occupational therapy at MU, she has had people with heart problems, arthritis, mobility problems, as well as people recovering from injuries attend her classes.

“Tai chi is an activity that people can practice without injuring or jeopardizing themselves, and it can be used to help someone heal or maintain health after an injury or illness,” Matsuda said.

The focus of tai chi is on breathing, slow sustained movements and balance. Matsuda teaches a simple form of tai chi to older adults and has adapted it to include sitting and standing versions. The class, one of many tools she uses for therapy, is taught for wellness, fall prevention, improved concentration, balance and relaxation.

A 2004 article published in the American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation reviewed more than 200 research reports about the therapeutic benefits of tai chi.

Some of the listed benefits of the art form include improved cardiovascular function, better pain management, decreased risk of falls, an enhanced immune system and improved flexibility.

Tai chi expert Yang Yang, who will be leading the workshop next weekend, said his research has found that practicing tai chi produces many benefits, including improved strength, flexibility, balance and immune function, improved sleep, decreased pain and improved overall well-being.

About the instructor

Yang Yang is a traditionally trained and internationally recognized tai chi master. He is director of the Center for Taiji Studies in Champaign, Ill. Taiji is the traditional spelling for tai chi. He has a doctorate from the University of Illinois in kinesiology, the study of human movement. In 2005, he published “Taijiquan — The Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power” that won the Chicago Book Clinic Award of Excellence in Publishing. In 2006, he was named “Qigong Master of the Year” at the Ninth World Congress on Qigong and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

“There are many benefits to tai chi, and here in the West people are just beginning to appreciate and study it,” he said.

A 2005 study by Yang involving 68 people with an average age of 80 found that after two months of tai chi, the participants’ strength and balance improved by 10 years.

Mary Cruise, who has been teaching tai chi in Columbia for four years, said the discipline is used more often for people with arthritis, mobility problems and for pain management. She’s also seeing it being used for cardiac and diabetic patients.

According to the 2002 National Health Interview Survey on the use of complementary and alternative medicine in the U.S., conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1.3 percent of the 31,000 adults surveyed used tai chi for health reasons.

“Tai chi has taken root and blossomed in this country,” Matsuda said. “It is more accessible now, though not the same degree as yoga or other popular movement exercises.” She cites increased curiosity about the longevity of Asians as another attraction.

Pablo Mendoza, who has taught tai chi since 1987 and came to Columbia in 1998, said tai chi was taught within Chinese communities throughout the U.S. in the early 1900s.

It was only after World War II that it was taught to non-Chinese by U.S. military who had learned the martial art in China.

Kenny Greene, who has been teaching tai chi in Columbia since the 1980s, dates the advent of tai chi in Columbia to the 1970s, when he began taking tai chi classes. “Tai chi has been popular for quite a while, and it comes in and out of awareness of the media,” Greene said.

Cruise agreed that tai chi has been around Columbia for at least 20 years. She teaches a wide range of ages. Her youngest student is 3 and her oldest is 96.

“It’s becoming more popular now with all the health benefits,” she said. “It’s an intergeneration activity. It’s out there and people are willing to find it.”

Charles Baerwald, a user support analyst at MU, takes weekly tai chi classes at the MU Student Recreation Center.

He has been practicing for 2½ years and sees it as a form of relaxation and also a way to strengthen his body. “Standing on one leg for a long time is physically challenging, but that’s how you get stronger,” Baerwald said.

“Once you get the moves down, it’s easy and relaxing,” said Chris Merrill, a football player who takes the same class at the recreation center.

Mendoza describes tai chi movements as being continuous, smooth, steady and tied to breathing.

The written origins of tai chi have been traced to the Chen village in China.

Many of the moves, such as “white crane spreads its wings” and “snake creeps down,” imitate and describe nature. It is believed that these movement patterns were created by a Taoist monk named Chang San Feng after close observations of animal movements.

Some tai chi schools consider Chang to be the founder of tai chi, but he remains a legendary figure due to the lack of historical records.

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