Tai Chi is more than just a gentle form of exercise, it's a journey.
That’s how Rick Starks, a hemophilia B patient, described the practice that he says changed his life.
“I used to hide my bleeding disorder from everybody, my friends, instructors, before I met my wife on dates, everything. I was ashamed of who I was. And through Tai Chi, I learned to accept more of who I was,” he said.
If you’ve seen people practice Tai Chi, you know it’s a combination of focused breathing and flowing body moves performed in a circular motion in harmony with others. Where did Tai Chi come from? Taoist monks believed the best way to master fast self-defense movements was to perfect them by first doing them slowly, Starks said. The quiet benefits and sheer joy of Tai Chi are believed to have evolved from the brutal discipline of Kung Fu.
Starks said he started practicing Tai Chi 10 years ago on his own. Living “out in the middle of nowhere,” he watched DVDs and videos to learn how to move using the proper techniques. One of the merits is that Tai Chi can be easily done at home, but nothing beats joining up with others either virtually or at a school of Tai Chi and having an instructor that knows your boundaries and can adapt movements based on mobility, Starks said. Not only is it more fun this way, but also the feedback from an instructor is important when you’re starting out.
Starks himself became an instructor, sharing it with other patients through the Coalition of Hemophilia B.
“I joke around, laugh as much as possible with them, and they don't realize that they're working. Their mind is getting out of their way and for a few moments, they have no stress, they're not thinking about bleeds, they're not thinking about what bills they have to pay or their insurance. They just come to life and that's what I love,” Starks said.
He shared the practice with his daughter – also a hemophilia B patient – and believes it helped transform her into a collegiate all-American pole vaulter. Tai Chi can give you flexibility, strength, clarity, endurance and most importantly, a way to forget about the pain associated with a bleeding disorder.
If you would like to try it, the most important advice is to start in a safe way and make sure your doctor agrees you can begin an exercise program. Tai Chi shouldn’t hurt, he said.
“Go to the point right before you start to feel pain, hold it. Take a deep breath and then release it. And what that does is that expands your boundaries and your limitations which I’ve increased just through Tai Chi. I’ve increased my range of motion especially in my hips and my ankles,” he said. “Do what you can do. And if it hurts, stop.”
And remember, it’s a journey. You might run into your physical and mental boundaries, that’s OK. You can always begin again tomorrow and work to overcome limitations, he said.