Frequently Asked Questions

taichiwomanAnswering Your Tai Chi Questions

An Arthritis Foundation tai chi instructor talks about the exercise class

Thinking about trying tai chi but want to know more? We talked to Norma Castle, an Arthritis Foundation tai chi instructor who teaches classes in Westchester County, New York. Castle, who has practiced tai chi for more than a decade, has been certified to teach Dr. Paul Lam’s “Tai Chi for Arthritis,” a modified tai chi program done in conjunction with the Arthritis Foundation.

How would you describe tai chi for someone who has never experienced it?

It’s an ancient set of exercises which are based on a martial art, but a lot of it is now practiced for the health benefits. The health benefits are improved flexibility, coordination, endurance, stamina, strength and relaxation, which is very important. There’s kind of a meditative component to it. The movements are slow and gentle so you bring your attention to what you’re doing and thinking. That’s why it’s great for people with arthritis. If you have arthritis in your knee, for example, and you’re moving slowly and you feel something in your knee, you can stop at that point. We don’t say, “Keep going! Push yourself!” We say, “Do it gently. If you start feeling stressed, stop.” Each day you do a little bit more and take note of what you’re feeling.

What is the movement like?

It’s slow and smooth and it’s soft and it’s gentle. You are using your muscles and you are ranging your joints. Depending on a person’s conditioning, it could be a major leap to moving a lot or it could be not that much if a person is exercising already. It is gentle but it is exercise.

What do first-time people come into class expecting?

I find that people come in and want to try to improve their health. A lot of people have had some exposure to tai chi. People sort of associate it with groups of older Chinese folks out in the park. They’re surprised by the end of class to see what it is and what it feels like. But it’s very positive.

How does tai chi differ from yoga?

It’s related in a certain way. It does have a meditative component. We talk about breathing but it’s less complicated than the breathing in yoga. The main difference is that we’re moving and in most yoga, they’re not moving. In yoga, for the most part, they don’t modify to meet needs and it’s often strenuous. Yoga calls for a lot of flexibility and stretching. The way I’ve been trained is to be adapting and modifying to meet the needs of different populations. Tai chi can meet the needs of people with different conditions.What can someone expect in a tai chi class?
You work at your own level. You can sit or stand. You want to bring your attention to what you’re experiencing so you don’t stress yourself. The movement should be beautiful and fun to do. I demonstrate the move and then I’ll talk people through it and then we do a lot of repetition. The moves are very unusual for people, but they’re not unnatural. They’re actually quite do-able. There are very few people who don’t get it. Generally, students do pretty well. We’re not looking for perfection.

What have your students told you are the benefits of the class?

Improved balance, better flexibility, deeper breathing. I have personally experienced a lot of improvement in the ability to walk and bend. I have osteoarthritis in my knees and lower back and I think the tai chi has helped me a lot. I also swim regularly and use a stationary recumbent bike. People have to find what works for them. I think tai chi works very beautifully.

Can anyone do tai chi?

I have taught my 4- and 6-year-old grandchildren. They were very cute and liked it. I’ve taught younger 50ish adults and seniors and my oldest student is 89. I’ve also done a class for the Arthritis Foundation at an adult daycare center where the people had cognitive impairments like dementia and Alzheimer’s. These people can’t remember the moves but they can follow and were very responsive to the meditative, gentle moves. On the day the tai chi class was scheduled people who were normally agitated were calm. There were some very good results.

Any personal arthritis success stories you’ve heard?

I’ve gotten positive feedback. People have said, “I’m moving better. I’m more relaxed. I can walk better. I can get out of bed easier. My knees don’t hurt.”

Why should people try it?

In all the classes I’ve taught, I’ve gotten almost 100 percent positive feedback that they’ve found it helpful to them in doing their activities in daily life with less strain and they find it fun to do. There’s really a feeling of shared energy and doing this positive thing together. It has an amazing effect. It’s kind of magical.