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Tai Chi & Stress Fractures in Feet

by Susan Lowell, ATCQA-certified Tai Chi Instructor (Level-III)

I want to thank two students for alerting me to the fact that, in the months after starting Tai Chi, they each suffered from a stress fracture in the foot. In at least one of the cases, the student felt sure that the cause was not Tai Chi, but rather that it stemmed from an earlier, unrelated problem. I was completely taken by surprise, because Tai Chi is typically known to be wonderful for the bones!

In all my years of teaching and practicing, I've never heard of Tai Chi causing a stress fracture, but I took these coincidental events as a sign that I'd better "bone up" on the topic. After all, Tai Chi is designed to be a healing practice! Here's what I learned:

According to NIH's MedlinePlus service, a stress fracture is simply a "hairline crack in the bone that develops because of repeated or prolonged forces against the bone." The Mayo Clinic expands upon this: "Stress fractures are caused by the repetitive application of force, often by overuse - such as repeatedly jumping up and down or running long distances. Stress fractures can also arise from normal use of a bone that's been weakened by a condition such as osteoporosis." They go on to say, "you may be at risk if you do too much too soon."

I think these statements offer a clue as to why Tai Chi is such a healing exercise. The guiding principles tell us to never use force (on ourselves or others), to go gradually, and to stay well within our range of comfort: "no excesses and no insufficiencies." We "step empty," gradually shifting our weight, and, because "the whole body is threaded together" all forces are effortlessly distributed through the entire body; no one part bears undue pressure.

But, what can we do, beyond these things, to help reduce undue pressure on the feet?

For this I asked Maggie Newman, one of the very most experienced teachers in the world (just turning 90 and yes, still teaching!). Maggie suggested that if we fail to get our "sits bones" (ischial tuberosities) underneath us and if we fail to allow our pelvises to be active, that she would imagine this could result in becoming heavy on the feet. 

Try this and see if it makes sense to you: stand up and take your sits bones out from underneath you by pushing them behind you (stick your butt out!). Can you feel an increase of pressure on your feet? You may find that your knees tend to lock as well-not good! Now, roll the bottom of your pelvis forward so that your "sits bones" are under you, and allow your knees to soften, you lower back to expand, your thighs to go forward and your pelvis to be active. Is it now possible to feel more stable and comfortable without feeling so heavy on your feet?

We may never know the mystery of what caused the stress fractures in the feet of these students, but I'm grateful to have been prompted to get a bit more informed on the subject. There are no guarantees in life, and none in Tai Chi, either. But in my experience this practice has always given back far more than the small effort I put into it. When injury comes our way, as is likely to be the case at some point, it's nice to know that this healing practice can support our recovery and help to prevent future injury.

So, we relax, we sink, we center, we align ourselves, we step empty, we shift, and we repeat. In the process (according to recent research), we are simultaneously improving flexibility, bone density, confidence, muscle strength, self-esteem, heart health, outlook, coordination, rehabilitation rates, general well-being and quality of life. We are also reducing stress, blood pressure, B-type natriuretic protein (an indicator of heart failure), sleep problems, cholesterol, triglycerides, and C-reactive protein.




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