Parkinson’s patient discovers the benefits of tai chi

Diane Schlindwein

Early Monday evenings, when other folks are rushing home from work, a group of 10 men and women who are in their 50s or 60s quietly learning the art of tai chi.

At St. John’s Hospital in Springfield, Ill., Ron Taylor takes his spot in the front row, right next to his instructor Yi Karpen. He moves slowly and deliberately, just like all of his classmates. Yet in his eyes, a look of quiet determination shows he’s here for a serious reason.

Taylor isn’t taking tai chi only for the benefits of relaxation — he’s in the class because he is doing his best to beat Parkinson’s disease. While reading one of his Parkinson’s publications, he found an article touting the benefits of tai chi. Right away, he decided to try it out.  

Taylor, who lives in Pleasant Plains, Ill., is dealing not only with Parkinson’s but also a crushed vertebrae and neurological problems with his left leg.

Research based

Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system, affects movement and motor control. Tai chi, the martial art involving slow rhythmic movement, has been shown to benefit seniors by maintaining strength and balance. It also has been found to help people who have Parkinson’s. 

Taylor was right to follow up on the reading, Karpen said. She explains that a study, which appeared in the Feb. 9 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, has gotten a fair amount of attention. 

Research scientist Fuzhong Li divided Parkinson’s patients into three groups. One group did resistance training with weights. Another attended stretching classes. The third took up tai chi. Each group participated in a 60-minute class twice a week for six months.

After the classes ended, Li found that tai chi patients were stronger and had much better balance than patients in the other two groups. Moreover, Li reported that the tai chi participants’ balance “was four times better than those patients assigned to the stretching group and about two times better than those in the resistance-training group.” 

Karpen, who grew up in China, said she has been teaching for 10 years. 

“There are 24 forms in tai chi, but everybody teaches it differently,” she said. “I teach the simplified version that is most popular in China. With beginners, I introduce some new forms each week, and then we practice it next time.” 

She said most of her students are at least middle aged and come for a variety of reasons.

Anywhere, anytime

Ron Taylor attends the class with his wife of 45 years, Christy Taylor. 

“I come along to offer encouragement,” said Christy. “I’ve found that it is very relaxing.” 

The couple has also purchased a DVD from Karpen so they can practice at home. 

“Tai chi is good for people who don’t want to go to the gym and sweat,” said Karpen. “There is no equipment, and all you need is 10 feet of space. You can practice anytime, and you can even do this on your coffee break.”

Karpen hopes people will continue to come to the classes to learn tai chi and to feel better, both physically and emotionally. 

“Slow-motion exercise often builds confidence in people. I had one lady who was up in her 70s. When she first came here, she used a cane. After a while, she was here doing tai chi without her cane.” 

As for her current class of new tai chi enthusiasts, all is going well, Karpen reports. She is especially pleased with Ron Taylor’s progress. 

“Ron is very serious about this, and he really works at it,” she said. “I watch Ron because his left leg has a lot of problems. During the first class, he could hardly move it. But he is doing so well. In only three weeks, his balance is so much better.”

Diane Schlindwein is a freelance writer in Illinois who can be reached at