I'm very happy to introduce a guest blog by Karen Dabrowski, who has very useful words of advice from her experience of pain. Becoming aware of the tai chi principles of posture and putting these into practise can make a huge difference, as she explains below:

Master Pain: Lessons You Can’t Ignore

Perhaps more by good luck than good management I was relatively pain free when I started learning tai chi. There was a slight discomfort in my back but it was soon cured by sliding my back down the wall and bending my knees. The sifu at the club takes pain seriously and is eager to ensure the practice of tai chi is correct and does not cause grief to learners or long term practioneers.

I heard some horror stories: one club member could not lift his arm, (*) another broke his fingers due to over judicious use of the punch bag (*). I never thought it would happen to me. And for about eight months all was well.

(*) Fiona here:  the first guy had torn the tendon inside his shoulder in his life outside the club and the latter had punched into the wall, hitting his hand into a pipe, with predictable consequences.

Then one night I got cramp in my legs, the ankles hurt, the muscles were sore, the hamstrings ached. What brought this on? The physio said it was non-skeletal and sent me to the GP. The GP said all was fine, no blood clots, nothing to worry about. “These things happen sometimes. Your muscles get stiff.”

I was uncomfortable and stopped training for about three weeks. It was not a pleasant time, my routine had been disrupted. I was doing what I would rather not do, going to lectures I was not really interested in.

The trainer at the gym gave me some stretching exercises and felt the tightness which he was able to loosen. I was afraid to return to classes but in the end resolved to talk to Sifu as I did not want to stay away any longer. He said the cause may be the changing climate. “It is quite normal to feel pain in the joints,” he assured me. “The worse thing you can do is stay away because you stagnate.” And of course the knees must be over the toes and you must remain single weighted.

My final port of call was an acupuncturist who practised tai chi. First he asked to see the form. Stepping too wide did not help. He also advised me to try and make the movements flow. Two sessions helped and after than I was on my own with a five point check list:

  1. Exercises to relax the joints

  2. Change the stepping. Swing the tail bone in between the heel.

  3. The nose, the index finger and the toe should align.

  4. Make the movements smooth in accordance with the breath.

  5. Relax the small finger.

Counting the first 14 of the 108 form, required for the yellow belt grading, certainly helped as there were no allowances for bad posture or incorrect weighting.

The pain eased off and gradually disappeared. But the lesson of Master Pain was one that could not be ignored. It was a warning that not all was not as it should be. Tai chi is a pain reliever. If it causes pain the fault is not with the tai chi but with the practioneer. It’s time to shape up, improve the posture, concentrate on every move and take responsibility. You caused your pain and you can make it go away. Above all relax and enjoy. Life is too short for grief and pain, tai chi a precious jewel. Do not tarnish it by incorrect practise. Master Pain does not have to be your taskmaster. But if he makes his presence felt, respond to his wake up call.

Fiona: I have noticed that Karen's stepping has greatly improved. Whereas her steps were very wide when she started tai chi, just recently they have become much more controlled, enabling her to achieve the tai chi principles of posture much more accurately.