One of the best ways to strengthen and improve balance is by learning a form of T’ai Chi. A study from Emory University showed amazing results: people older than 70 years old who practiced T’ai Chi had 47.5 percent fewer falls than those who did not.
We start to lose our balance as we age because our feet weaken. There are, of course, other factors such as problems with the eyes and ears, side effects of certain medications, and symptoms of such conditions as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis or stroke. A practice of T’ai Chi can help have a significant impact on balance, however, as it strengthens the feet and legs.
I have been teaching a simple form of T’ai Chi (called T’ai Chi Chih) at the Hospital for Special Surgery Integrative Care Center for 17 years and developed a balance class based on T’ai Chi & Qigong movements. Many students have told me how much their balance has improved as a result of their practice. When they feel themselves falling, they are often able to stay on their feet by doing a T’ai Chi movement to steady themselves.
Why is T’ai Chi so helpful for balance? In the T’ai Chi Chih form we constantly shift our weight forward and back (a 95 percent weight shift). There are 19 movements in the form and one standing posture. One leg straightens as the other bends. When we shift forward, we are allowing the back heel to release from the floor, and when we rock back we allow the toes to release. Some of the movements go to the side, but we always step with the heel so the foot is flexed. We are always shifting our weight from one leg to the other, and before we step out, we sink to a slightly lower level. In several of the movements we go up slightly on our toes.
We also move from our Dan Tien, which is our energy center or center of gravity. The Dan Tien is located a few inches below the navel, so we move our pelvic area forward and back, never tipping our body forward and back from the waist. We visualize that we are pulled up to the sky by a golden thread, so we keep a nice upright posture. When you observe older people walking in the street, you may see they often step with the toes first, taking very tiny steps. They usually drop their heads down and lead their movements with the chest, which is far more likely to lead to a fall. In T’ai Chi we use some length and width in our steps, which makes us feel much more stable, as we have a strong base.
If we practice T’ai Chi regularly, our feet, ankles and legs begin to get stronger. We have better coordination and neuromuscular proprioception (nerve and muscle communication), and it gives us more confidence in standing upright.
Carolyn Perkins is an accredited T’ai Chi Chih instructor, a graduate of the Swedish Institute and a certified Ingham Reflexologist with extensive training in a variety of healing methods. In 1998 Carolyn studied Qigong Healing with a world-famous master at a hospital in Beijing. She became an accredited teacher of T’ai Chi Chih in 1995 and has subsequently studied other forms of T’ai Chi under masters in Australia, China and the U.S. She is also the originator of a unique form of balance movements (called Chi Balance) based on T’ai Chi and Qigong.