This form of adaptive tai chi is good for range of movement, arm and stomach muscles, and the respiratory system. And almost anyone can do it.
By Lori A. Wood
Gary Paruszkiewicz (center) has developed a form of tai chi that people can do in chairs or wheelchairs.
The story of one man’s journey toward an adaptation of a popular slow-motion form of an ancient Chinese martial art begins in October 1991, when Gary Paruszkiewicz was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Today, Paruszkiewicz is the Certified Stress Management Educator at Stress Management Workshops, Inc., located in Kankakee, Illinois.
Up from Bottom
“I was born and raised in a restaurant family, so all I’d done my entire life was cook,” Gary says. “I was in pretty bad shape. My legs had started bothering me. At one point, I was in a wheelchair, using sixteen tablets of Valium every day for spasticity and 2,400 milligrams of ibuprofen every day for pain. With my MS, I’m temperature-sensitive, so I couldn’t go into a warm kitchen. I lost my job and was on welfare. I was ready to commit suicide.”
Gary’s wife, Gina, suggested that he go back to school.
“There was money available through the Illinois Department of Rehabilitation Services. I got involved with the psychology program at Governors State University, located in University Park, Illinois. For my minor, I became a Certified Stress Management Educator, because I found that stress management techniques like yoga and meditation were making me stronger and calmer, and I didn’t have to take all of my medication.”
After graduating in 1996, Gary started a program of Qigong (pronounced chee-gong, meaning “energy work” in Chinese) yoga and tai chi, mixed together, as physical therapy. Qigong is a Chinese health system that dates back to 350 BC. Acupuncture and massage are Qigong practices, as well. Tai chi is a slow-moving sequence of exercises to create resistance, which is used to illustrate graceful movement.
“Qigong, tai chi, and yoga are all kind of in the same category, concentrating on stretching, slow movement, and breathing,” Gary says. “That’s why they fit together so well. As a result of adapting these techniques for myself and practicing them every day, I haven’t used my wheelchair in about ten years, and haven’t needed medication for at least nine years.”
Given the benefits that he experienced from these methods, Gary saw potential in teaching them to other people with disabilities.
A Simplified Regimen
After meeting with yoga and tai chi masters and teachers, physical therapists and other health professionals, Gary devised a program that he calls therapeutic tai chi in a chair. “I very much simplified the routine to be done in a chair,” Gary says. “In typical tai chi, you learn about one hundred and eight movements. But I came up with a nine- movement form, which is plenty for people in wheelchairs, or who have standing issues. Tai chi is good for flexibility and balance, because you’re shifting your weight. I eliminated a lot of the esoteric names of movements like grasping sparrow’s tail and parting horse’s mane. They get in the way of learning how to do the forms.”
The routine that he and the experts created is based on yoga stretches and Qigong breathing exercises. “It’s done from the hips up, so you can sit in a chair and still get exercise,” Gary relates. “Medical research has shown that all people need to get about thirty minutes of moderate physical activity every day, but there’s nothing for people in wheelchairs. We can’t do aerobics, run, walk, or do push-ups. This exercise is a full range of motion, full body stretches and deep breathing exercises, based on the concepts and traditions of tai chi, Qigong and yoga, but done in a chair.”
Instructors, for Gary’s therapeutic tai chi in a chair class are trained using a variety of methods, including sensitivity training and taking the class themselves, without the use of their legs. “This allows them to better understand what it’s like to be disabled,” he says.
Therapeutic tai chi in a chair consists of four different elements.
“There’s a group of about six different exercises that are repeated a couple of times and done as warm-ups. Then, if people can, I encourage them to stand up and do the nine-movement form. For instance, you begin with what’s called ward off. You step in one direction, and slowly bring your hands up and back, then shift your weight and step in the other direction. Even people with spinal cord injuries can do the movements in their chairs. People who have MS who can stand but can’t walk can hold onto a walker or the back of their wheelchairs to do the shifting movements of tai chi while standing still. As a cool down, I’ve adapted the sun salutation sequence to be done in a chair, which stretches all your muscles and gets you breathing deeply. You’re moving slowly enough that you get really relaxed while you’re doing it. Finally, we end each session with a guided relaxation technique.”
Thanks to his class, some of Gary’s students have enjoyed remarkable physical improvement. “One lady with MS has been in my class for a little over a year, and when she started, she could walk from her house to her mailbox at the end of the drive, without her cane, but she’d have to have it with her to walk back. She said now she can walk almost a mile without her cane. She said she is doing other therapies, as well, but the tai chi really helps.”
“I also have an 86-year-old man as a student. He is legally blind from macular degeneration, has Parkinson’s disease, and has had a stroke. After doing our eye strengthening and comforting yoga exercises, he hugged me, saying, ‘Why didn’t my doctors give me these exercises ten years ago?’ He feels much stronger with them. He says that he looks forward to the tai chi class, and that it has really been helpful for balance. This is why I do these things. I’m not making any money doing this, and I don’t want to. There’s no paycheck in the world that can match that.”
At a cost of $35 for eight classes, instruction is available to people of all ages and abilities, who are invited to join at anytime. The class meets every Wednesday at 10 am, for sixty to ninety minutes. Attendants are invited to join the class at no charge. For further information and/or registration, please call the Kankakee Valley Park District at (815) 939-1311.
In time, Gary hopes that therapeutic tai chi in a chair classes will be taught on a national level. “There aren’t too many classes right now, because certification has only been going on for about a year. I know that there are classes going on in St. Louis, Missouri, and several being planned or currently going on throughout Illinois. I’ve been working with people from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and all of my material is sitting with their Medical Review Board in New York right now. If all goes well, it’ll become a nationally promoted program, with standardized testing, instruction, and classes that can be offered nationwide.”
“A lot of people think that, if they can’t do a sit-up, they can’t exercise. I tell them, instead of trying to overcome overwhelming tasks, do just one small step at a time and continue to improve. You have the rest of your life to improve.”
Lori A. Wood is a regular contributor to Action.