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Recovering from a Stroke: Tai Chi Exercises

 

by Julia Rodack

If you’ve survived a stroke and are in recovery, you might be wondering about your next steps and how to get your life back to a sense of normalcy. One easy step may actually be thousands of years old. A recent study showed that adding the Chinese practice of Tai Chi to your stroke recovery and rehabilitation routine may help increase balance and functionality.

The study, presented at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference 2013, showed that among stroke survivors, those who practiced Tai Chi experienced the fewest falls over the trial period.

Tai Chi is a martial art dating back to ancient China. It includes physical movements, mental concentration and relaxed breathing.

“The main physical benefits of Tai Chi are better balance, improved strength, flexibility and aerobic endurance,” says Ruth E. Taylor-Piliae, Ph.D., R.N., the study’s principal investigator and assistant professor at the University of Arizona College of Nursing in Tucson, AZ. “Psycho-social benefits include less depression, anxiety and stress, and better quality of life.”

Tai Chi can also be a great long-term solution to improve fitness. “Tai chi is a practice,” explains Tony Burris, a licensed acupuncturist and Tai Chi teacher.  “In other words, it is meant to be practiced daily…the movements, breathing patterns and principles of body awareness can only be ingrained with consistent practice.” Because of this, he suggests practicing short and simple forms, like the ones below.

To start your own practice, consider trying a class. “The best way [to start] is to find a teacher that you feel comfortable with and you enjoy,” Burris says. “The best teacher is the one who inspires you to show up to class regularly.” In addition to learning the correct forms for poses, a class setting will encourage participation and generates good group energy and support.

To practice Tai Chi on your own, try these two moves at home in front of a mirror.

Tai Chi Exercise 1 — The Beginning Movement

Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, knees bent about one inch, lower back “dropped” or flattened in a relaxed manner. Arms should be at the sides with palms facing rearward and fingers gently extended (not rigid). Imagine holding an egg in each armpit: Gentle enough to hold it in place but not close enough to your body to crush it.

  • Head should be facing straight ahead as if a thread attached to the crown of the head was gently pulling up, thus keep the back of the neck straight.
  • Breathe into the lower abdomen. Inhale, raise both arms straight up in front of you to shoulder level, draw gently back toward your body as if sliding across a table.
  • Exhale and allow your hands to “float” gently back down to your sides. Repeat seven times. It’s very important to coordinate the breathing with the movement of the arms. 

Tai Chi Exercise 2 — The Tai Chi Ball

  • Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Both knees should be bent about one inch, lower back “dropped” or flattened in a relaxed manner. Head should be facing straight ahead as if a thread attached to the crown of the head was gently pulling up, thus keep the back of the neck straight.
  • Both palms should face the lower abdomen (below the belly button) about eight inches off the body. Gaze between your palms and body.
  • Inhale, expand the lower abdomen, rise slightly out of your knee bend and allow your palms to move slightly away from your belly.
  • Exhale, relax the lower abdomen, sink back into your knee bend and allow your palms to come back closer to your body. Repeat. It’s important to coordinate the breathing pattern with the hand and knee movement.
  • This exercise is called “Tai Chi Ball” because your palms mimic the expansion and deflation of your lower abdomen as if you were inflating and deflating a ball.

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