Becoming Healthier Through Tai Chi

by Jeff Shair and printed March 2007 - National Spasmodic Torticollis Association Magazine

Unfortunately, I suffer from a disease called Tardive Dyskinesia a movement disorder, which is caused by prolonged use of some psychiatric medications.  My affliction is compounded by the fact that I also have Generalized Dystonia. Although Tardive Dyskinesia (TD) has been referred to as an irreversible condition, after joining Golden Breath American Tai Chi I have discovered that this is not always the case. Since attending my class in Philadelphia, I have made remarkable advances in both my physical and emotional conditions. Golden Breath has given me immeasurable benefits, which will continue to bless me for as long as I live.

The Golden Breath System was founded by the ageless Robert "SiBok" Kassof. SiBok dedicates his life to this discipline which has changed so many people's lives. My story is just one of many. For years, SiBok taught his discipline in Philadelphia and the surrounding areas. He always stresses the importance of practicing the moves every day and coming to class at least once a week in order get the full impact from the Golden Breath System. He reminds his students often to refine their older moves, as well as concentrating on learning the newer ones. Although the teacher has moved to Florida, he has left the classes in capable hands of instructors who have studied under him. We are all blessed when SiBok returns to our classes in Philadelphia every few months. Besides having classes in Pennsylvania and Florida, SiBok has Golden Breath American Tai Chi classes in California as welL

When I began the tai chi class four years ago. I manifested several TD symptoms. Foremost was my struggle to breathe. Invariably, I was gasping for air while I was walking somewhere. I can painfully recall the difficulty I had just walking around the corner to a restaurant where I often ate my lunch. I can vividly remember when I had to frequently come to a standstill to catch my breath before I  could reach my destination. Furthermore, when I had to go downtown for my weekly appointments, I had to walk several blocks which left me breathing extremely hard before I came to the bus stop. On several occasions, passengers would inquire if I was okay after I took my seat on the bus. I was so out of breath they presumably thought that I was having an asthma attack or even a heart attack. Although I appreciated their concern, eventually it became burdensome because of the frequency of their questions and the realization that my breathing problems were attracting so much attention. My respiratory difficulties were ameliorated after starting my Golden Breath American Tai Chi class. I soon discovered that I was able to breathe much easier. There was a good reason that my breathing had advanced as far as it did. All of the exercises of the Golden Breath System are centered around the coordination of breath and fluid movement.

Actually, I didn't fully appreciate the extent of my progress until a couple months after I began going to class. When I went to visit my family in Florida that winter, we went to Universal Studios where I miraculously was able to walk around the whole theme park for the entire day, without getting out of breath or becoming overly tired. This accomplishment is even more extraordinary when you consider the fact that the previous year when I visited my relatives I needed a motorized wheelchair to get around EPCOT Center. After coming home from my trip, it became clear to me how vital tai chi was to my life. By practicing the movements three times a day, I discovered that I was walking better than I ever did before. I remember how my TD was so bad at one time that I was walking on the tips of my toes. It is remarkable to me how fluid my stride had become after learning the moves. I have walked with an uneven gait since I was a child. Long before I had even developed TD, friends and family could easily recognize me at a distance by my rocking from side to side when I walked. I can gladly say this is no longer true. Furthermore, I am thrilled that I am now able to walk for several blocks at a fast pace. I also used to dread climbing up steps because I knew when I reached the platform, my heart would be pounding exceedingly fast and my breathing would be out of control. While I still don't like to go up a flight of stairs, my fear has subsided because now, when I reach the top of the steps, my heartbeat and breathing are relatively normal.

Another essential benefit I have received by doing the tai chi moves is my improved balance. I can remember in recent memory more than a couple of instances when I have tripped. While I was heading face down on all fours to the ground, I was fearful that I was going to be seriously injured. Instinctively, I was able to regain my balance and prevent myself from falling. Most likely, without my tai chi experience, in these circumstances I would have had terrible accidents that would have required me to go to the hospital. This makes me ponder how many senior citizens can benefit from doing these movements. Especially, if you take into account that the elderly are prone to falls that generally result in breaking hips. My newly developed coordination is also manifested by my quick reflexes, which enables me to catch an object that falls from my hands before it reaches the ground. I never thought my coordination could get better at all, let alone to this vast degree.

Moreover, my head used to be in constant motion before I started the movements. It would frequently bob back and forth, which resembled a person who suffers from Parkinson's disease. What was considered to be an involuntary movement of my disorder, is now completely under control. My head rarely shakes at all anymore, and I have more lateral movement with my neck. Now I have the flexibility to turn my neck to the side with more ease. The beauty of tai chi is that it gives you enormous control that becomes naturally part of your existence.

My entire adult life, I have struggled to keep my weight down. Despite my dedicated efforts to keep pounds off, like so many others, I would ultimately gain all the weight back and then some. Since starting the Golden Breath movements, I have accelerated my metabolism to the point that I have been able to consistently keep off 20-25 pounds. The astonishing thing about all of this is that I still can eat pretty well without putting on weight. Not only have I lost pounds, but I have lost weight evenly distributed throughout my body. For example, I have always had heavy thighs. Today, they are about half the size than they were previously. Similarly, I used to have wide hips and regularly had a 48" or 50" waist. Since starting tai chi, I can proudly say I have maintained my waist size at 42" for the last few years. Furthermore, I have developed incredible muscle tone just by doing these relatively simple exercises instead of spending hours in the gym. This has been confirmed by people in my life who have complimented me on the dramatic change in my appearance.

Like the physical improvements I have experienced, there are a number of mental and emotional rewards that I have also received. For instance, my focus is significantly sharper. Once again, I never thought this function could be improved. Case in point, I generally read about seven to ten books per year. Before I joined my tai chi class, I would read a book only occasionally. The significant progress in my concentration has also allowed me to become a better listener. In addition, my short-term memory has dramatically changed for the better. I have always had excellent long-term memory, yet my short-term memory used to be poor. Likewise, I have found that these exercises have significantly reduced the level of stress in my daily life. This allows me to approach the day in an upbeat mood. Therefore, I am able to cope with problems that come up during the course of a day more easily.

I would say one of the most principle outcomes from doing the moves is my abundant energy. There is no question in my mind that I would not be able to hold to my current job as a consultant for the Department of Behavioral Health in Philadelphia without having the positive results I have received from the tai chi class. I simply would not even have the stamina to travel downtown on public transportation to get to my workplace. Nor would I have the enthusiasm that I bring to my job. Currently, it is not uncommon for me to be at three or four places in a single day.

Here I have stated several situations where my symptoms of TD have become less apparent. Yet, there are some things that haven't improved as much as I would like. The most obvious symptom of my TD is my frequent grimacing.

Although this has improved somewhat, it is still quite pronounced. In addition, my handwriting is still as illegible as it was for years, due to my writer's cramp. Thank God for computers!

Tai Chi can be beneficial to many people despite their health condition. Recently, the medical community has openly acknowledged tai chi as a supplement to one's health care. In the class that I attend, there are students whose ages range from young adults to senior citizens. Also, there are several students who seem to have no visible health issues at all. Perhaps, you may feel that tai chi is as foreign to you as its name. Let me just say that if someone had told me ten years ago that I would be consistently participating in a weekly tai chi class, I would have considered that person to be out of his or her mind. To my surprise, I now get great enjoyment out of an activity that I thought I never would have any interest in at all. This realization has been significant in my growth as an individual, It is possible that tai chi has helped me in areas that I haven't even fully recognized. One thing I do know for sure is that the benefits keep on coming as I advance further and I become more proficient with my moves. Certainly, my active lifestyle would be curtailed considerably, and my pleasure in life would be diminished greatly without this discipline. I would urge you to join a tai chi class even if you have doubts. I truly can tell you that I have been blessed tremendously by this form of exercise.