If you turn on any Blaxploitation film ¸— from “Cleopatra Jones” to “The Black Dragon” — you’ll see us conquering enemies through high jumps and intricate footwork. These 1970s classics portray us as bold, assured, and invincible masters of martial arts.
Karate and kung fu are beneficial to kicking butt, of course. But when it comes to tackling Alzheimer’s and other dementias, tai chi is worth a try.
Its slow and relaxed, yet concentrated movements strengthen the parts of the brain that control walking and breathing. Tai chi is known to improve flexibility and focus.
“The repetitive movements can try to repanel and reconnect different neural pathways in the brain,” says Scott Ruff of Forever Tai Chi in New York. He and instructor Pamela Dye have been teaching tai chi since 2010 and studying the technique even longer.
“I was doing kung fu before that, which is a lot more rigorous,” Dye says. ”After a shoulder injury, she embraced tai chi. “I liked the relaxation, the movements. It wasn’t as rigorous, but it was very meditative.”
Tai chi requires acknowledgment and mastery of the present. Each step — be it hand, arm, or foot — is intentional and predictable. This consistency can be empowering. “If you have Alzheimer’s or any type of dementia, you’re not worried about falling or stepping wrong,” Dye says. “You’re just focused on relaxing into the movement and enjoying.”
There are different routines for you to try out based on your schedule. If you prefer a morning routine, then a gentle tai chi exercise — like this one — could be helpful. If you prefer afternoon or evening exercise, then try this one.
Regardless of your routine, Dye and Ruff say there are three basic principles that will keep you in good shape as you learn the technique:
- Breathe from the diaphragm.
“Breathe from the lower part of your stomach area (and your diaphragm, in particular, which is at the top part of your stomach, and that will expand as you inhale. As you exhale, you relax that muscle,” Ruff says.
- Practice your posture.
“Think about a string pulling your head up from heaven,” Dye says. “You want your shoulders relaxed. You want your chest slightly concave. You want your knees slightly bent. Think about your tailbone pulling you down and your head being pulled up.”
“You want to keep your focus where you are,” Dye says. “In the moment. You can visualize a number of things.”
Perhaps one great benefit of tai chi is learning and relearning about your body and its connection to the earth, your energy centers, and the mind. If you have Medicare, you may be eligible for an in-person tai chi class. Check what classes are in your neighborhood here.
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