This is such a wonderful question posed by Kim Hansen, a PTA from Phoenix, Arizona. While I personally don’t have access to a pool for patient use, Tai Chi can certainly be performed in the water, which can also highlight more subtle aspects of the practice. For many centuries, Tai Chi masters have been advocating practice while submerged in water as a way to enhance sensation of the multiple directions of force around us.
When practicing on dry land, the primary force we sense is gravity or one in a vertically descending direction. When a body is submerged in water, the force of gravity is balanced by buoyancy and centrally compressing pressures, making it excellent for treating things like distal extremity edema and spinal compression. These centrally compressing forces can be felt on all surfaces of the body resulting in a more tactile Tai Chi practice experience and highlighting the idea that, even when on dry land, forces are acting on the body in multiple directions simultaneously.
When practicing Tai Chi in the water, notice how it feels to move your arm away from your body. On the leading side of the arm you may notice a pressure increase and on the trailing side of the arm an area of lower pressure. If you move quickly, that pressure difference becomes greater and pushing away requires more effort. If you move slowly you may be able to feel the higher pressure spill over the leading edge of the arm and fill the space on the trailing side, which will actually assist the arm in moving forward; the same way a boat gets pushed forward by a trailing wave after turning off its motor.
One of the cues we use most often when practicing Tai Chi on dry land is to visualize that you are moving through water or honey. In revisiting our last example, imagine those centrally compressive forces and the idea that your arm is assisted as it moves away from your body. Feel some buoyancy in your body as your arms and legs are lifted away from your sides. Sense that moving slowly creates the most efficiency as a pressure waves spills over the leading edge of your arm or around your whole body.
Finding novel and imaginative ways to experience movement can often reveal more productive movement strategies for our clients and ourselves. Einstein said, “ We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” In my experience, sometimes a little imaginative movement is just the thing to open new possibilities in a client’s mind where before only barriers existed.
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Originally published February 2015.