Oklahoma Seminoles Discover Health Benefits of Tai Chi

Tai Chi, a martial art that originated from Ancient China, has been shown to ease the arthritis pain of seniors of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and can potentially benefit American Indian young adults who suffer from diabetes and other health issues.

The practice, which generally engages gentle physical exercise and stretching, was developed centuries ago for self-defense purposes. Overtime, it evolved into a graceful form of exercise that helps with stress reduction, among its many other health benefits.

“I tell everyone that they can regain their independence, their balance and their strength [through Tai Chi],” said Jerome Harrison, exercise specialist for the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma Diabetes Program and tribal member. Harrison said Tai Chi has been used to help lower blood pressure, decrease inflammation related to arthritis, lower blood sugar levels and manage diabetes.

Once a week, Harrison leads a Tai Chi class for Seminole seniors, ages 50 to 70, called the Older Adult Program. Classes, which are held at Wewoka Oklahoma in Seminole County, take place every Friday at 9:30 a.m. and last for 45 minutes. Like most forms of Tai Chi, the one Harrison teaches involves slow, continuous whole-body movements. (Some forms are more fast-paced and exerting.)

Seminole seniors initially responded with an open mind to Harrison's introduction of Tai Chi as an exercise activity. “They thought it was like karate and a little bit more challenging," Harrison said. "I talked to them and said Tai Chi is a steady, slow pace and easygoing exercise. It is not aggressive.”

Even activities that may seem very fundamental, such as breathing exercises, have significantly helped Seminole elders relieve stress and relax, Harrison said.

On September 12, Harrison was asked to demonstrate Tai Chi to a younger group—about 25 people, ages 20 to 50—prior to the Men and Women’s Health Summit, held September 14-15 in Midwest City, Oklahoma. The 7th annual gathering, co-sponsored by the Association of American Indian Physicians (AAIP), was targeted at health and education professionals who interact with American Indian families.

“Obviously, Tai Chi is an eastern philosophy and exercise not common to the Seminole people before their program's launch," explained Jason McCarty, outreach coordinator for the AAIP’s Healthy, Active Native Communities Program. "Now it is being practiced in the heart of Oklahoma by tribal elders, and there is huge potential for continued growth."

McCarty added that Tai Chi is a growing trend nationwide for its low-impact movements and meditative qualities.

At the conference, a pregnant woman inquired whether it was safe and helpful for her. Harrison said it would definitely be beneficial during pregnancy.

Now Harrison and the Seminole Nation are looking at introducing Tai Chi to Seminole youth. "We had a diabetes camp for young adults [in July] and we demonstrated the movements [at the camp held at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma]," Harrison said. "There was some interest there.”

Harrison has been teaching Tai Chi in the Older Adult Program for two years. Prior to that, he worked with the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, and the tribe's health department requested he add Tai Chi to their curriculum. He began learning the practice at the Tai Chi for Health Institute from the institute's director Dr. Paul Lam.

On the health institute’s website, Dr. Lam explains that the essential principles of Tai Chi include mind and body integration, fluid movements, controlled breathing and mental concentration. “The central focus is to enable the qi (pronounced chee), or life force, to flow smoothly and powerfully throughout the body," he states. "Total harmony of the inner and outer self comes from the integration of the mind and body. This can be achieved through regular practice."

Harrison said most of the 12 to 15 people who take his class have arthritis. “I have received feedback that it has helped them be more flexible and regain balance,” he said, citing examples that some can reach items on top of the shelves that they could not prior to practicing Tai Chi. A lady who regularly used a walker no longer has to use it as much, Harrison said.

“The exercise and philosophy behind Tai Chi is a perfect fit for American Indian elder programs and youth programs,” McCarty said. “The more we commit to organized physical activity, the better we can combat the multitude of chronic diseases we see in Indian country."