By Jean Latz Griffin
For Richard Partridge of San Francisco, life is good these days. In fact, he says, it's very good. "I feel like a million bucks about 90 percent of the time. I am energized, my T-cell counts are stable, and I have a lot more energy and endurance than I have had in years."
Partridge, who learned he was HIV-positive in 1991, credits part of his improved health and stamina to the more than four years he has been practicing Taoist tai chi, one of several styles of the ancient Chinese meditative exercise that is becoming increasingly popular across the country.
After long years in the shadow of yoga on the meditative side of movement routines, and trailing behind karate in the martial arts realm, tai chi has suddenly found itself in the right place at the right time, and is one of the fastest growing trends in the nation's $52.9 billion fitness industry.
Two years ago, Partridge helped start the California chapter of the Taoist Tai Chi Society. As part of its mission, he introduced Taoist tai chi to San Francisco's Shanti Project, an agency that provides comprehensive services to people dealing with HIV and AIDS. It quickly became one of the center's most popular courses, says Shanti's peer advocate Jennifer McGaugh.
"We have been working towards having classes that are more holistic and relate to wellness and how to improve your overall health, and tai chi fits right into that," McGaugh said. "I have had a number of people who are taking Richard's tai chi classes tell me that they feel better, are more present in their body and are not so stiff."
People who are incorporating tai chi into their battle against HIV or AIDS are among a growing number of people who see the graceful exercise as part of their quest to achieve optimum health naturally. In San Francisco, there are dozens of tai chi groups, including a free practice every weekend morning at Golden Gate State Park.
In Chicago, the lesbian-owned Thousand Waves Spa for Women and Thousand Waves Karate offers monthly tai chi workshops at least three times a year. Co-owner Nancy Lanoue says she wishes Thousand Waves had the classroom space to offer tai chi more frequently, "because people in the community are constantly asking why I don't have it all the time."
Women worried about osteoporosis appreciate tai chi's bone-strengthening qualities. Busy career men and women find it is a better stress-buster than the rougher work-outs they have tried. Seniors seek its newly proven ability to maintain strength and reduce the likelihood of falls.
And middle-aged Baby Boomers who lack the stamina and agility for yoga find they can ease into tai chi, working up to the more difficult moves as they become more fit and flexible.
Although no one has a firm count on how many people are practicing tai chi, the number of U.S. chapters of the International Taoist Tai Chi Society have increased by 38 percent since 1995. The periodical T'ai Chi has grown in just more than 20 years from a newsletter to a 72-page glossy magazine with a world wide audience. Tai chi classes now outnumber yoga classes in many continuing education and park district programs.
Partridge was introduced to Taoist tai chi by friends at a time when he was battling not only the HIV infection, but cancer of the bladder, a recurrent inflammatory bowel disease and a fierce infection in his heel from having stepped on a nail. He had been hospitalized 20 times in the past five years, sometimes for up to two weeks. He was not responding well to his anti-viral therapy, his T-cell count was dropping and he was "in a deep depression."
"My immune system definitely needed some extra help, so after talking to some of my HIV-positive friends, I started doing tai chi," Partridge said. "At first it was the weirdest thing. I didn't really know what to think of it. But I just hung in there. The first thing I noticed was that my lower back, which had always been tender, started feeling better. Then my T-cells started to increase. They have now surpassed the 700 level, and my doctor says, 'whatever you are doing, Richard, just keep doing it.'" In addition, he says, the debilitating depression has lifted.
Partridge says he has been on the same antiviral medication for more than five years, a combination of AZT and ddC, and has not taken any protease inhibitors. Yet, a recent viral load test showed no evidence of HIV in his blood. "I believe that tai chi has enabled my body to accept the medication and has limited the side effects," he said.
As more is learned about the connections between mind and body and between spirit and healing, non-Western medical practices, like tai chi, yoga or meditation, are being recognized as important adjuncts to more traditional medical treatments, not just for HIV, but for many other physical and psychological ailments.
Circulating the internal energy -- or the chi, sometimes spelled "qi" -- and removing blockages to its flow is a major goal of tai chi, just as it is of other Chinese medical arts, such as acupuncture. "Chi is the energy or air in our bodies, and when people do tai chi, they are getting in touch with their chi, even if they do not know it," said Dr. Singkin Yue, a psychologist at San Francisco State University who practices the Yang form of tai chi with the Golden Gate group.
Partridge says some tai chi practitioners believe that it is the repetitive motions of tai chi, which help circulate the blood, lymph, cerebral and spinal fluid throughout the body, that are crucial in helping Western medicine be more effective in treating an HIV infection.
"It is thought that there are places within the body that antiviral medications have difficulty penetrating, including the slow-moving lymphatic system," Partridge said. "Since the lymph empties into the circulatory system, any increase in the circulation of lymph fluid allows a greater exposure to the antiviral medications in the blood."
Tai Chi received a major boost in 1993 when Bill Moyers included it in his public television documentary and best-selling book, Healing and the Mind. Then in 1996, two studies sponsored by the National Institute on Aging showed tai chi to have significant health benefits for the elderly and frail, by reducing falls and improving strength and balance.
Partridge said that some of his students report that their neuropathy has eased and their feet feel better since they have started tai chi.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that tai chi may also ease lower back pain and arthritis, guard against breast cancer by stimulating the lymph nodes, offer protection against osteoporosis by building bone density, strengthen the immune system, improve cardiovascular health and lower blood pressure.
"There are thousands of studies waiting to be done to test whether there is substantive weight to these claims or whether it is wishful thinking," said Elliot Kravitz, MD, professor of geriatric and internal medicine at McGill University in Montreal and medical advisor to the International Taoist Tai Chi Society, which has opened a residential Health Recovery Centre north of Toronto that combines medical care and tai chi. "We will not find the answer in my lifetime or my grandchildren's. But we must begin the dialogue."
People who practice Tai Chi for several years say they first begin to feel better physically, and then start to notice psychological changes in themselves. The concentration required to perfect the moves quiets and focuses the mind in much the same way that meditation does. The improved balance and sense of being at home in one's body raises self-confidence. And the energy created by moving in unison with a group makes the members of the group more connected to and compassionate towards the world around them.
At the edge of a pond, with birds flying overhead, about 50 men and women gathered recently in Golden Gate State Park to practice tai chi, moving through the gentle, seamless forms. Young and old, black, white, Asian and Hispanic, they attempt to perfect moves with exotic names -- White Stork Spreads Wings, Carry Tiger to Mountain, Strum the Pei Pa-- while maintaining internal and physical balance.
"When you are doing Tai Chi, you should feel the connection to everything around you," says Terry Hall, chairman of the health sciences department at City Colleges of San Francisco, who is leading the class. "Taoism teaches that mind and body are interconnected. We can work on the mind through meditation, but not everyone has the discipline for serious meditation. By positioning the body in a balanced state, the mind will follow and be in balance. And if you can extend that mind/body connection to other people and the trees and the water through tai chi, it will support you, give you comfort and alleviate fear in your life."
Beyond the practical benefits, many say tai chi touches them, much like poetry and music does, by creating a gateway to new levels of awareness and new connections with their inner and outer worlds.
"Tai chi movements are so elegant and so circular that I feel that I am dancing with air and dancing with nature," said Yumi Nakno, 38, a San Francisco student, dancer and member of the Golden Gate group. "I am praising my body and loving myself."
Partridge recently received the Volunteer of the Year Award from Shanti and a California State Assembly Certificate of Recognition for his tai chi work at Shanti.
Partridge says he is calm about the future, whether tai chi helps him overcome the virus and become completely healthy, stay alive until a cure is found, or "live my fixed amount of time and have that time be much happier and more fulfilling as a result of practicing Taoist tai chi."
"I have gone from being a very depressed person to being a very healthy person, with a positive outlook, planning years into the future rather than just to the next doctor's visit."
Jean Latz Griffin is a free lance writer and former Chicago Tribune reporter who has written extensively on health and gay and lesbian issues.