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Health

Tai Chi

Students practing Tai Chi in Rotary Park in Bernalillo.

Everyday tai chi

—Daniel Mintie

Less and less do you need to force things, until finally you arrive at non-action. When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.   —Tao Te Ching

Many years ago, Peter Yang, my first tai chi teacher, came to visit my home in Bavaria. My housemate at the time had an eight-month-old German shepherd named Colette. Colette’s great joy in life was tearing across the muddy yard and leaping all over anyone who stepped out the back door. My housemate tried to discourage this unbridled jubilance with heart-to-heart talks, bribes, and, finally, beatings. Colette remained intransigent.

Peter, a slight man then in his late 70s, stepped out the back door. Colette launched from her haus in the corner of the yard, picking up speed, making straight for Peter’s white tunic. Peter glanced at Colette, looked away, and softly raised his right palm to her. Two meters from takedown, Colette hit the brakes, skidded to a stop, and politely sat down.

This is tai chi.

The legendary Gōngsūn Xuānyuán, the “Yellow Emperor,” is China’s most celebrated monarch. His physician is said to have established Chinese medicine. His wife is said to have woven the first silk. His court historian is said to have created China’s written language. The emperor himself, perhaps unwilling to delegate a matter so crucial to his subjects and his empire, is said to have founded Chinese martial arts.

In historic times, Chen Village in Henan Province emerged as the center for what is recognized today as tai chi. The Yang style was developed in the early 19th century by Yang Lu-ch’an—“unbeatable Yang”—who first studied tai chi at Chen Village. In 1850, Yang was hired by the emperor to train the Forbidden City’s elite palace guard, a post he retained until his death in 1872. Yang passed his art down to his sons and grandsons—most notably Yang Ch’eng-fu—whose life work made the Yang style the most widely practiced form of tai chi in the world today.

In his 1934 book The Essence and Applications of Taijiquan Yang, Ch’eng-fu wrote: “Taijiquan was not created to serve quarrels or tests of strength. People who wish to protect themselves, cultivate their nature, prevent illness, and promote longevity—whether literate or illiterate, emaciated or healthy, young or old, man or woman—can all study this art. Those with perseverance can accomplish results within three years.”

Twenty-four years after Peter stopped Colette in her tracks, my neighbor’s puppy, Lucy, still jumps me every time I visit.

The Yang Long Form, choreographed by Yang Ch’eng-fu, is a series of just over 100 martial-arts applications linked together in a seamless, energetic dance. It takes about 30 minutes to perform. The individual frames have names that, like the art’s Taoist roots, reference the natural world. White Crane Spreads Wings. Wild Horse Parts Mane. Snake Creeps Down. Done slowly, as in a dream, the long form is as mesmerizing to watch as Pueblo dancing on feast days. It proceeds as does nature itself—relaxedly, purposefully, with the final elegance that is simplicity itself.

Done quickly, in response to an attack, it launches bodies into the air, dislocates joints, and snaps bones like matchsticks.

At sunup in any park in China, the locals do tai chi. They again work out together in the evenings. As in Pueblo dances, all ages participate. Kids on their way to school stop to check out the action. Party officials bicycling to work put down their kickstands and do a few frames. It’s not a competitive sport, for the most part. But when you grow up around it, you develop an eye for the thing. You understand what it is you’re looking at.

One evening, another of my teachers was walking through Victoria Park in Hong Kong.

Victoria is a large and very beautiful park, and on any evening, there are thousands of people out in small groups doing tai chi. From a distance, Greg noticed a guy about his age leading some students. He thought the guy’s form looked pretty good, which is not something Greg often thinks. So he went over and hung out until a break. Turns out the guy, who Greg had never met, had years before trained with a teacher Greg, too, had trained with.

I was astonished when Greg told me this story. Greg was not. For him, it was like hearing, many years later, someone halfway around the world speaking the particular dialect of your home village in Alsace. You’d know that sound anywhere.

Western medicine has begun taking an interest in tai chi. Last month, the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a randomized trial conducted at Tufts University School of Medicine. Fibromyalgia patients there did Yang style tai chi for three months and experienced “clinically important improvements” in their symptoms. The Tufts trial is the latest in a growing series of single- and double-blind studies that have linked tai chi practice with decreased blood pressure, decreased LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, improved immune system function, better joint health, and decreased anxiety and depression.

How all of this benefit follows upon moving slowly in a prescribed form is something nobody has yet figured out. The New England Journal of Medicine puts it this way: “The biologic mechanisms by which tai chi might affect the clinical course of fibromyalgia remain unknown.”

The Tao Te Ching puts it this way: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.”

Daniel Mintie is the resident teacher at Turtle Mountain Tai Chi.  TMTC offers weekly classes in the Yang style in Bernalillo and Los Ranchos. Visit them on the Web at turtlemountaintaichi.com, or call (505) 792.4519.


Side-step frailty with exercise

—Richard N. Waldman, MD, President, The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
By 2030, the number of Americans age 65 and older is expected to double from 35 million to 70 million. And as the ranks of older Americans expand, so will the occurrence of chronic disease among this population.

Increasing age is considered a main risk factor in the development and progression of most chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and cancer. Many seniors first turn to medications to combat these problems, often overlooking an inexpensive and powerful technique to reduce and even prevent disease: exercise.

In addition to the benefits that regular exercise holds for everyone—such as increased energy, improved mood, strength, and muscle tone, and reduced body fat and body mass index (BMI)—older adults have even more to gain.

Physical inactivity is a culprit in much of the loss of strength, stamina, and flexibility that many assume is a side effect of aging. Declines in aerobic capacity and muscle strength can increase the risk of falls and injuries, such as hip fractures, and can severely limit one’s ability to perform everyday tasks and maintain independence.

Exercise combats this progression. It can help improve balance, circulation, and cardiovascular function, lowers blood pressure, and wards off weight gain. It can improve quality of life and self-esteem and reduce the risk of memory problems and dementia in older adults. Regular physical activity may also help increase life expectancy by delaying the onset or progression of chronic diseases.

All adults should aim for at least two hours and 30 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical activity per week. If you are unable to do that amount of activity, do as much as you can.

If the idea of getting active is less than exciting, remember that being fit is not about running a marathon or even joining a gym. In fact, it’s probably much easier than you think.


Vinegarroons & Verbal First Aid

—Judith Acosta, LISW

It’s a constant lesson. Despite 25 plus years treating trauma, despite everything I know about the power of words and neurochemistry, despite having coauthored two books on therapeutic communication and teaching it across the country, despite spending years healing my own fears, I had to learn it yet again.

The first one was so obvious my husband had to nudge me with his elbow to shut me up. A few times.

We had guests, one of whom was a very gentle, very sensitive seven-year-old boy. Sometime in the evening, just as the sun sank towards the desert horizon and we were finishing dinner in the courtyard, I suggested he go get his flip-flops.

“Why?” he asked. “The bricks are warm.”

The temperatures had been unusually high, hovering most of the day between 100 and 105 degrees. 

Completely unconscious as I was scooping up plates and glasses, I let forth a torrential description of every toxic bug we have in New Mexico—scorpions, centipedes, fire ants, and on and on. Not to mention the bobcats, the mountain lions, the coyotes, and the lizards. Or the roadrunners and how they’re really predators. Oh, lest I forget, I told him about the great horned owl that swoops down silently in the night to pick up small, furry creatures. (I am mortified as I write this.)

As the boy’s eyes grew big as saucers, my husband tried to distract me: “Jude, you want me to take those with you?” He was trying to get me away from that poor child, but I was on a roll.

“Where are they?” our little guest asked.

“All over!” I said with honest idiocy.

That night, he had nightmares and wet the bed. And I had to remind myself of some vitally important lessons.

Lesson #1: Fear is Viral.

The last thing I wanted to do was frighten that sweet child. The truth was that those things frightened ME, and once I started talking about them, I was being moved by my own adrenaline and had lost control of my mouth.

So, after some proper self-admonishment, I brought myself back to basics.

Nothing moves us faster, spreads faster, or stops us faster than fear. It takes 1/12,000th of a second for the sound of something moving in the bushes to make our hearts beat out of our chests, our intestines to contract, and our hands to sweat.

This massive physiological response involves only a very small part of our brain—the limbic system, which includes the amygdala, the hippocampus, the fornix, and cingulate gyrus. Some people call this the Lizard Brain because it is located properly in the center of all that gray matter and operates on primitive pistons set only for survival. It doesn’t think. That requires the cortex and frontal lobes of the brain, which process, moderate, integrate, and execute with judgment. The limbic system reacts.

This reaction is unconscious, vigorous, and persistent. And, as everyone who’s ever been in a stadium knows, it is contagious, which is why we have to be so careful with what we say and how we communicate.

The other night, my husband and I were sitting outside after a rare and heavy rain. I was watching a couple of hummingbirds top gun it around a feeder when my eye fell on a six-inch, pincer-wielding, armor-bearing bug that connected directly with my amygdala. “SCORPION!!!!” I thought, but could not speak. I was sure that our lives were in grave danger. I pointed up to the edge of the portal where the thing had started to move down towards us.

“What?” my husband asked more than once.

I kept pointing.

“What?”

“That!” I finally yelled.

He went over to look at it. “Isn’t that what we saw by the garage that time?”

What we had seen by the garage, I told him, was minuscule compared to the monster in front of us. It had to be a scorpion, look at its pincers, and its claw-like mouth, and its whip-like tail, I argued. I knew it was a scorpion, and since I knew that, I also knew I couldn’t let it stay there for fear of it stinging the dogs.

Fear. Fear. Fear.

It’s fast. And it makes us very foolish.

Because as calm as he started out when he went off in search of a shovel and bucket to gently remove the poor scorpion, my fear had infected him, and he came back with only the shovel.

Only after we had dispatched the poor creature did he set me to look on the Internet and find out that what I had made such a fuss over was a harmless whip scorpion or vinegarroon, a bug-eating, garden-loving, New Mexico night crawler. Absolutely nontoxic.

I felt guilty and, once again, foolish.

This is what fear does to us. Even though, as we know, it takes 1/12,000th of a second to go to red alert, it takes a lot longer to think a situation through.

Stupid is fast. And, as I found once again in my life, fast is also pretty stupid.

Lesson #2: Start with Self-soothing

One thing we all need is the capacity to self-soothe, to move from limbic to cortical thinking. As my own stories have confessed, it is a critical component in the demonstration of good judgment and, as others have attested, to survival.

This form of self-soothing is very different than obviously false aphorisms or empty reassurances. This is not delusion or denial or dismissal, either.

When I have experienced it, it is more like having a center. And it is very far from empty. It is a core strength that fills us and calms us when we need it most.

A friend of mine, Lt. Jim Lloyd, was nearly captured when he served as a Navy pilot in Vietnam. He had been on a mission about 150 miles north of the DMZ when his plane was hit,
and he ejected in the middle of a nearly infinite expanse of rice paddies and open pastures. After hours of crawling, running, and submerging in two feet of water mixed with human excrement, his emotional state wavered.

He tottered on the edge of despair when he reached down deep within and told himself, “I know I’m in a difficult situation, but as long as I have my freedom, I have a chance.” Most importantly, he believed he could trust his training to make it out of North Vietnam alive. “Through it all,” he said, “I felt I was being led by the experiences of the scores of aviators before me.” They knew how to survive and so would he.

That is self-soothing in crisis.

We are not born with this capacity. We learn it. Most often, we learn it from our parents or caretakers. Occasionally, we learn it from others we meet along the way.

Regardless how we learn it, we need it. Especially children.

Parents who want to raise children who can eventually soothe themselves (and grown-ups who meet vinegarroons at sunset) can take some very simple steps to do so from the Verbal First Aid protocol.

Lesson #3: Take a Breath, Get Centered, Then Gain Rapport

First things first. Take a breath.

Although I forget this more than I care to admit, when I do remember it, it is a lifesaver.  

Brains need oxygen. And the time it takes to forcibly fill our lungs with air when we are shallow breathing affords the brain the few seconds it takes for our cortical functions to kick in.

When we are caring for a child, this is terribly important because, as we saw, fear is viral. If we are afraid or anxious, they become equally, if not more, so. When we approach a child who’s just been hurt—whether it’s emotional or physical—whatever we say or do must come from as calm and centered a place as possible. In fact, our state of mind is communicated far more quickly than our words and can corrupt what we say in an instant.
When I give talks on Verbal First Aid, the first question I ask is, “What’s the worst thing you can say to your spouse when he or she is upset with you?”

And inevitably, in every audience, a group of people scream out, “Relax!”

How many ways are there to use that one word? It can mean so many things, depending on the emotional state of the person using it: “Bugger off,” “Cut it out,” “I don’t want to hear it,” “You’re hysterical.” Or it can mean, “I’ve got you,” “I’m here, and you’re safe,” and “You can trust me.”

The difference between the two interpretations of a single word comes down to the existence or failure of therapeutic rapport. Rapport is that state of positive expectation and understanding between two people so that what you are saying is construed in the most positive and healing way possible.

An example: A small boy was taken to the hospital because of severe, acute abdominal pain. He was agitated—as were his parents. No one had developed any rapport with him or served as an anchor for him in an obviously stressful situation. The doctor examined him in a rush, pulled the parents aside, and said in a voice the little boy could still hear, “He’s probably got gas.” The little boy promptly became hysterical, believing he was going to blow up “like in the movies.”

My late friend and colleague, Tully Ruderman, used to say, “Rapport is the track on which all future communication runs.” With rapport, what we say is interpreted in the best way. Without it, Murphy’s law rules.

Lesson #4: Remember My ABC’s

A = Authority

B = Believability

C = Compassion

For parents and caretakers, this is what I call “Kid Whispering.” Children take their cues from us, whether we like it or not. How we present—our energy, caring, and honesty—gives them guidance. Sometimes we guide well. Sometimes life gets the better of us, and we have to reboot.

The important thing is that we understand that these qualities form the gateway for therapeutic suggestion and our ability to lead children from chaos to calm, from pain and panic to patience and relief.

Lesson #5: We’re all Responsible

I’ve had people say to me: “Well, you’re responsible for yourself, for what you feel. I should be able to say whatever I want.”

This is true, of course, in a political system. Each of us is politically and legally responsible for ourselves. That is part of being in a free society.

I would, however, point out that it’s also just one part of a larger picture, and that in a social-emotional-neurologic system, we are all responsible for what we create in the “collective consciousness” or in the environment we share with others. I certainly was responsible for the panic I generated when I pilloried my young guest with stories of mountain lions, black widows, and great horned owls. And I certainly was responsible for my contribution to the death of one poor vinegarroon. While I didn’t MAKE my husband respond the way he did, I helped to create the circumstances for it.

This is neither bad nor good. It is simply and honestly the way things are.

I wish it were otherwise and that I were somehow inured and impenetrably defended against other peoples’ feelings about me or impervious to thoughtlessly tossed about words, but I’m not. We are all susceptible to what other people say, and we all respond biologically and neurologically to the images their words create in our minds. Children especially.

Who hasn’t felt the kick in the gut from humiliation? Or the pang of a rejection? Or the physical relief of hearing a simple, “It’s okay.”

Everything we say, everything we feel has some impact on whatever and whoever is around us. (And if some quantum physicists are right, it may not even matter if they’re around us.) We all know this intuitively. Someone walks into a room, and the whole mood changes. Someone points at you and laughs, and you suddenly need to use the bathroom.

We are connected. And whether we like it or not, whether we vote for it or not, it gives us not only some responsibility, but it gives us hope.

If we can create panic, can’t we also create calm? As Milton Erickson, M.D., said, “If iatrogenic illness is possible, is not iatrogenic health also possible?”

My mistakes were not pleasant, but they were reminders that we have a great untapped potential to be truly healing with every word we say.

 


The Healthy Geezer

—Fred Cicetti

Q. Is it true that farmers are more likely to get Parkinson’s disease?

A. Although genetics is very important in Parkinson’s disease (PD), many researchers believe that environmental exposures also increase a person’s risk of developing the disease.

There are studies that show that farmers and other agricultural workers have an increased risk of getting PD.

Parkinson’s disease was first described in 1817 by Dr. James Parkinson, a British physician. It affects 1 in 100 people over the age of 60. It can also affect younger people. The average age of onset is 60. Research suggests that PD affects at least 500,000 people in the United States.

Parkinson’s disease is a complex disorder of the central nervous system. It is the second most common neurodegenerative disease in the United States, after Alzheimer’s.

The defining symptoms of PD include tremor, slowness of movement, rigidity, and impaired balance and coordination. As these symptoms become more pronounced, patients may have difficulty walking, talking, or completing simple tasks. They also may experience depression, difficulty sleeping, and other problems.

The progression of symptoms in PD may take 20 years or more. In some people, however, the disease progresses much more quickly.

In the early 1960s, scientists determined that the loss of brain cells was causing PD. The cells that were depleted produced dopamine, a chemical that helps control muscle activity. Today, PD is treated with drugs and surgery.

Medications for PD fall into three categories. The first includes drugs that increase the level of dopamine in the brain. The second category affects neurotransmitters in the body to ease some of the symptoms of the disease. The third category includes medications that help control the non-motor symptoms of the disease, such as depression.

There are two commonly used surgical treatments for PD: pallidotomy and deep brain stimulation. Because these procedures are invasive, they are usually reserved for severely afflicted Parkinson’s patients who do not get adequate relief from medications.

Surgeons discovered that, by removing or destroying parts of the brain that were “misfiring,” some of the symptoms of PD could be alleviated. One of these operations is pallidotomy.

Scientists have found that they can mimic the effects of pallidotomy by deep brain stimulation (DBS). With DBS, an electrode is implanted in the brain in a way that calms the abnormal neuronal firing. Deep brain stimulation is now the primary surgical intervention for PD.

A wide variety of complementary and supportive therapies may be used for PD. Among these therapies are standard rehabilitation techniques, which can help with problems such as gait and voice disorders, tremors and rigidity, and cognitive decline. Exercise may help people improve their mobility.

While Parkinson’s is a complex disease, research has progressed a great deal in recent years. Halting the progression of PD, restoring lost function, and even preventing the disease are now considered realistic goals.

     

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