Cathy MacMillan Sihoe discovered tai chi in a most unconventional way. “I was very intrigued with this fellow at work, who always seemed to be busy doing tai chi. I thought I could spend more time with him by signing up for his beginner’s class. Eventually, I married him!” she says with a laugh. “I joined tai chi for love, but quickly fell in love with tai chi as well.”
The Victoria mom’s relationship with tai chi deepened during her pregnancy with her son, Emmett. “Ideally, pregnancy is a time in life when we really should take the time to listen to how we feel, and adjust what we’re doing to care for ourselves and our babies,” she says. “But the reality for most of us is that we’re busy working right up to the last possible moment, and we often forget to slow down and listen to how our bodies feel. The moving meditation, body awareness and focus on health I gained through tai chi was so beneficial.”
Many women search for a low-impact activity to help them stay active during pregnancy, and tai chi, a gentle martial art, is gaining popularity among Canadian moms-to-be. The ancient Chinese exercise is characterized by a series of graceful movements that flow together like a slow-motion dance, both relaxing and strengthening the body and mind.
Practising tai chi
Tai chi’s goal is to improve overall health, integrating fluid movements and mental concentration to create harmony of the inner and outer self. While practising tai chi, you learn deep breathing methods and focus on the flow of chi, or internal energy, throughout the body. Traditional Chinese medicine teaches that good health is maintained as long as the flow of chi is unobstructed. The slow movements encourage the quieting of the mind, turning it away from everyday worries and stresses. It is believed that when the brain is less active, it requires less blood and nutrients, which then become available to strengthen other organs in the body.
What makes tai chi such an ideal exercise during pregnancy? It requires no special skill, clothing or equipment, and its simple, gentle steps are easy to learn, even for women who have never exercised before. A pregnant woman can use tai chi to strengthen her body to support all the changes during pregnancy and prepare for labour and delivery. Best of all, it may help keep common pregnancy concerns, such as back pain, swelling and rising blood pressure, at bay.
“Tai chi teaches body awareness and helps to strengthen muscles and improve circulation,” MacMillan Sihoe says. “I was able to find my balance, practise good posture, relax.”
Judy Millen has been an instructor with the Taoist Tai Chi Society of Canada for nearly 30 years in Toronto. In that time, she has helped many pregnant women reap these benefits. “Tai chi looks really benign, but it’s extraordinarily powerful,” she says. “It’s a mild aerobic exercise, but the stuff that happens in the body is incredible.”
Millen cautions you to be certain the instructor has plenty of experience teaching pregnant women. Many instructors don’t teach moms-to-be until they’re beyond the first trimester as it’s felt the early growth of the fetus is easily disturbed. Millen, though, adapts her program for women in early pregnancy: “They do the same thing as the others in the class, except there’s much less pivoting and stretching. They take small steps through the moves.”
As with any exercise, you should seek medical advice before beginning a new program. “It’s extremely important that women are medically prescreened by either a family physician, obstetrician or midwife, to ensure they have a low-risk pregnancy before they even start,” says Michelle Mottola, director of the Exercise and Pregnancy Lab at the University of Western Ontario in London. “That’s essential.”
Both Millen and MacMillan Sihoe believe the added benefit of social interaction during pregnancy cannot be underestimated. “When you’re pregnant, it almost always puts a smile on someone else’s face,” says MacMillan Sihoe. “It brings forth that caring instinct in classmates, who are genuinely interested in your well-being. It’s a nice opportunity to feel cared for in a bigger sense — a community level.”
Find a class
While tai chi classes specifically for pregnant women are not common in Canada, pregnant women are welcome at any beginner’s class. Tell the instructor you’re pregnant so he or she can modify the tai chi set to make it safe for you.
There are different forms of tai chi that may appeal to you — do an online search to explore the various styles. The Taoist Tai Chi Society of Canada’s website, taoist.org, is a good place to find a class in your area.
Tai chi instructor Judy Millen cautions against learn-at-home DVDs, insisting that proper instruction is vital for you to fully benefit from the exercise, and to ensure you’re not harmed through incorrect movement.
What to expect
The class takes place in a large, spacious room with a mirrored wall. The dozen participants, men and women of all ages and backgrounds, wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing and flat shoes.
In a beginner’s class, the instructor teaches the different movements that create the tai chi set. Each movement is broken down and repeated to ensure the participants grasp the proper placement and movement of every body part. Standing upright, the students move slowly back and forth across the room, stretching, gliding, swaying and bending in unison. There is a calm that falls over them as their focus and concentration increase. The bodies are in slow but constant motion, hands and arms always raised and moving, which helps tai chi give the body such an effective overall workout.
Tai chi sets consist of dozens of movements done in a precise order to massage internal organs and enhance blood circulation, but a beginner’s class tackles only a few movements during each session until students can complete an entire set.
Many postures of the tai chi set are named after elements of nature (Grasp the Bird’s Tail, Wave Hands Like Clouds, Carry Tiger to Mountain). Some of these names originated with very early precursors of tai chi, which embraced the concept that imitating the living things around us can benefit every part of the body.
Also embodied in the tai chi set is the theory of the yin-yang symbol, the balance of opposites. Tai chi participants talk about feeling peaceful and emotionally balanced. Over time, they respond to stressful situations differently and feel more in control of their thoughts and reactions.