When we hear the words “Tai Chi,” it's easy to envision an action-packed battle between strong, agile fighters. We may reflect on the history and intense training linked to the ancient martial art. Some may think back to the cheesy Kung Fu movies of the latter 20th century. A rare number of us, however, will associate Tai Chi with what it really is—a therapeutic and beneficial practice that promotes improved cognition as well as physical and psychological health.
Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese meditative practice that was originally developed to promote self-defense and inner peace. There are a few different styles of Tai Chi (the Chen style, Yang style, Wu style, Hao style, and a combination style) but the practice predominately focuses on slow, deliberate movements, breathing techniques and flowing motions. In recent years, Tai Chi has gained popularity due to numerous research studies touting its health benefits. Because it is a slow-paced and low impact form of exercise, Tai Chi is a great activity for beginners, older adults, people with health concerns...and, as we know at Life Skills Village, it's ideal for people with brain injuries.
Tai Chi for Traumatic Brain Injuries
A traumatic brain injury impacts an individual's brain as well as their body and the way it functions. Damage to the brain may result in a cast constellation of symptoms including a loss of balance, coordination and physical movement. Fortunately, Tai Chi helps with circulation, alignment, balance, coordination and muscle control. The slow speed and precision of each move allows individuals to practice their balance and coordination without overstraining their joints and muscles.
When someone receives a traumatic brain injury, they often experience major emotional changes such as mood swings, depression, anger and anxiety. A recent study of Tai Chi shows short-term benefits including “decreases in sadness, confusion, anger, tension, fear” and “increases in energy and happiness.” There is also evidence of improvements in mood and self-esteem. Beyond the physical and psychological benefits, Tai Chi also improves cognition by boosting memory and, according to one study, even increases brain volume. This is especially significant since brain injuries may lead to a loss of memory, learning, reasoning, processing speed, judgment and concentration.
Tai Chi at Life Skills Village
At Life Skills Village Center for Brain Injury Rehabilitation, we offer two daily sessions of Tai Chi for our traumatic brain injury clients. Our therapists challenge their memory and recall of each Tai Chi move. Examples include "Play Guitar" and "White Crane Spreads Wings and Flies"[See Attached Video]. During these sessions, the self-defense application of each move is discussed and nicknames are given to certain moves in order to help with recall. Through constant repetition and memory tactics like association, clients are able to work on their cognitive skills. At the same time, they experience the physical, psychological and therapeutic benefits of Tai Chi.
Patrick, a client at Life Skills Village, has come a long way since the accident that led to his traumatic brain injury. As a Tai Chi devotee, Pat has 26 out of 108 moves memorized (the average is 5-15 moves)! He even practices at home to improve his memory. To Pat, Tai Chi means more than working on his cognition and memory skills:
"It's really good physically—calms you down and works your muscles and balance and everything—and that's all really important. But for me it's more of a therapeutic form of relaxation. It's the one time out of my day where I can focus on something and not worry about things. It allows me to take a step back, take life a little slower and really be mindful of everything around me and of what I'm going through and the things I'm doing.”
Pat continues to practice Tai Chi regularly and encourages others to try the meditative practice.
Feel free to comment and share your own experiences regarding Tai Chi or any other therapeutic exercises.
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About the Doc
Dr. Bryan Weinstein is a practicing psychiatrist with certification from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. He has practiced psychiatric pharmacology and psychotherapy since 1997. Dr. Weinstein is the CEO of Life Skills Village.