Sue Martin shows ancient Chinese exercise isn't just good for the able-bodied
Don't call her a poster girl for Tai Chi, my wife insists. I try to argue. Sue -- Susan Martin -- has multiple sclerosis and for years, she couldn't walk. She was in a wheelchair full-time.
On good days she had enough leg strength to transfer without help between the wheelchair and the bed, or the couch, or the toilet. On bad days, she didn't.
Now, she can walk again.
She's slow and wobbly, she can't go long distances and some days are better than others. But she's walking. She uses a scooter, a manual wheelchair or a walker to get from one place to another. Once there, she walks, with a cane or increasingly, without -- around our condo, at the Taoist Tai Chi Society, in shops and restaurants in the West End or downtown Vancouver, on the ferries and, to her immense joy, on the hard, wet sand when the tide goes out at Cox Bay.
She gives credit to Tai Chi. She does public demos with other members of the Taoist Tai Chi Society at health shows, at MS Society meetings, at the AIDS Walk, in seniors' homes, in shopping malls. She delivers testimonials about what Tai Chi has done for her. She is introduced to guests at the annual banquet.
"Poster girl," says the part of my journalistic training that boils things down into accessible cliches.
She finds that a bit patronizing.
"I'm not amazing," she tells me, firmly. "I'm not a poster child, I'm not unique, this is not an exception. A lot of other people have done similar things."
Here's the story:
Sue's MS was diagnosed in the fall of 1983, when she was in her early 30s. Her sensory inputs were getting mixed up. She couldn't tell hot from cold; touching her skin might produce pain. She felt incredibly tired. Her left leg "stopped working." An MRI scan showed the lesions on her spinal cord: multiple sclerosis.
"After that," she says, "I would have a relapse or an exacerbation on average once a year."
After each attack she would bounce back, but only part of the way. Each time, she would lose something, or a symptom would get worse and stay that way: "my feet, my legs, my walking ability, the strength in my arms, symptoms that I used to get like tingling, and numbness in my feet." The immense fatigue that often comes with MS was the most debilitating thing.
By the early 1990s, she was having trouble with stairs. We sold our house in East Vancouver and moved into a West End condo.
One of our memories of that East Van house is of looking out the kitchen window early in the morning to the small park across the street, and seeing a group of elderly Chinese people in the drained wading pool, performing strange, dance-like exercises, sometimes in the pre-dawn mist, sometimes with the rising sun illuminating them. It was our first look at Tai Chi.
From her first stay in hospital, Sue occasionally used a wheelchair. By the mid-1990s, she was using it all the time -- when she wasn't flat on her back.
"With the fatigue, towards the end of that time I was pretty well spending most of my time lying on the bed, reading or listening to the radio," she says.
One day at an alternative health care conference sponsored by the MS Society, she stuck her nose into a conversation several women were having about Tai Chi. "I think two of the women had been in wheelchairs at one time. They were very enthusiastic.
"I had seen Tai Chi being demonstrated and I thought, 'That looks really nice, I'd like to do that. Except I can't, of course, I'm in a wheelchair.' "
Encouraged by the women, she got in touch with the G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre, which hosts Tai Chi health recovery classes for some of its patients, which referred her to the Taoist Tai Chi Society, where one day six years ago, she joined a downtown Vancouver class taught by instructor Jim Nicholson.
Taoist Tai Chi was developed from the Yang style of Tai Chi and other sources by the late Moy Lin-shin, a Taoist monk who immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong in 1970.
He modified the 108 moves of the Tai Chi "set" with emphasis on stretching muscles, tendons and ligaments. With practice, the emphasis shifts to stretching and turning the spine and later still, to "massaging" the body's major internal organs. The martial arts origins are apparent in the moves, but it's for enhancing health and meditating, not for fighting.
People who can't stand are taught "the sitting set," doing the same moves, but while sitting on a chair. Arm, hand and torso movements and stretches are nearly identical; leg work is done by pressing one foot or the other into the floor to approximate the constant leg-to-leg weight transferring that's one of the keys to Taoist Tai Chi.
Sue says she got a good feeling about "the club" the first time she wheeled herself in. She thought it could be something to stick with. It was.
At first, she would be exhausted by the time the hour-long classes were half over. Over a year or so, she gradually gained enough energy and strength to work through a full class, and to begin doing exercises at home.
A year and a half into Tai Chi, she flew to Toronto to for a week-long session at the society's Health Recovery Centre at Orangeville. Just being able to fly across the country by herself was an achievement, she recalls. It required energy she hadn't had before Tai Chi.
"Tai Chi is different from other forms of exercise in that it gives you what I now know as chi -- essential life energy. I was by that time getting a feeling of well-being that I couldn't quite identify, but I liked it. I didn't know what it was, how to get it, how to keep it.
"But if I just did the exercises, even with a minimal level of ability, it gave me this feeling of well-being."
At Orangeville, where participants get intensive one-on-one instruction for as long as eight hours a day, an instructor got Sue out of her chair and walking. Haltingly, she managed to walk in a circle for perhaps 30 feet (10 metres), she recalls.
"It tired me out enough that I took a nap after lunch break and didn't even wake up for the next class. Standing on my feet is one of the most tiring things I can do. But it was a beginning."
It was the first time in four years she had walked such a distance. Now she walks routinely. She still does the sitting set as well as parts of the standing set. She attends mainly classes for able-bodied people, where instructors concern themselves with matters such as encouraging students to let their spines drop as they Ward Off Monkeys, letting it stretch as they stand tall in White Stork Spreads Wings, and feeling the connection as energy flows from foot to spine to hands.
Sue's MS has stopped progressing. She still gets exacerbations but now when she remits, she gains back what she had lost, and slowly, slowly nibbles away at earlier deficits. "That's not supposed to happen."
She says that's not amazing or at least, not poster-girl stuff. Okay. I've been doing Tai Chi myself since Sue started to walk again; how could I not? It's holding my arthritis at bay and I'm feeling better and more flexible than I have in 20 years. The "moving meditation" of Tai Chi has also evened out my temperament. I'm calmer, less easily aggravated. I think it's amazing.
Jim Nicholson says part of Tai Chi's effect comes from treating the human body as a whole.
"You try to get the whole body to work harmoniously and in a connected way; there's a lot of focus not only on making sure everything is moving, but also that everything is balanced. And movement needs to be relaxed in order to be healthy."
In many forms of exercise, first you do the work and then you relax. In Tai Chi, Nicholson says, you do both at the same time. "The more you can relax, the more of a workout you will get. That seems counter-intuitive at first, but if you do Tai Chi for a while you really begin to understand it."
The traditional Chinese view sees health in terms of the circulation of energy through the body, and Nicholson says western medical people are gradually accepting that does not contradict their own perspective. Taoist Tai Chi, he says, should be viewed as "another tool," not a substitute for medical care.
He says he has seen many students experience "remarkable changes in their health" after taking up Tai Chi. As in Sue's case, the ones who benefit most are those who work the hardest. "There are no short cuts. She really worked at it."
Participants in Tai Chi health recovery classes include people with Parkinson's disease, MS, arthritis, brain injury, stroke damage, HIV/AIDS and others. Classes are held at the downtown club as well as at G.F. Strong, Vancouver Hospital's Bamfield Pavilion extended care unit, the Canadian Cancer Society's Vancouver Lodge, and through the Vancouver Friends for Life Society.
G.F. Strong, the MS Society, a growing number of doctors and other health professionals refer patients to the Tai Chi group. There are also specialized classes for seniors; many participants are in their 70s and 80s.
The Taoist Tai Chi society is a non-profit group and a registered charity. Its instructors are unpaid volunteers. It has about 700 members in Greater Vancouver, 2,000 in B.C. and more than 10,000 nationally; it has branches in about 30 countries.
The Vancouver branch holds its annual banquet and a series of workshops for members in mid-November. On Sunday Nov. 16, it is sponsoring a public lecture on Tai Chi and health at the Chinese Cultural Centre, 50 East Pender Street in Vancouver, at 10 a.m. Admission is by donation. Speakers are chiropractor David Carson and Asian studies post-graduate student Paul Crowe.
For more information on Taoist Tai Chi see www.taoist.org; for local
information on classes and events, see www.taoist.bc.ca/vancouver.
Copyright © 2003, Vancouver Sun