Updated: Aug 21, 2019
Qigong and tai chi are excellent activities for people with fibromyalgia. Forget the footage you might have seen on YouTube of competitions in China... I'm not talking about that kind of tai chi. I'm talking about gentle, comfortable, relaxed, meditative movement.
Fibromyalgia (FM) is a condition of chronic pain and fatigue. In plain English, our bodies tend to overreact and freak out. The Lewis Institute defines it thus:
“Fibromyalgia is the name given to a group of symptoms characterised by central nervous system pain amplification in association with fatigue, poor sleep, mood disorders and a variety of cognitive problems primarily with memory and concentration.”
People with FM hurt a lot and this impacts their ability to exercise and sleep. This all contributes to a nasty cycle of pain, fatigue, lack of energy, depression, more fatigue and on it goes. A regular exercise regime can result in delayed onset muscle soreness that lasts for a week instead of two or three days. Hands-on treatment that is a wee bit firm can result in treatment soreness that lasts for a week instead of a day or two. Bed is very appealing, except if you stay there too long then you just get more stiff and sore.
I’m speaking from the experience of having lived with fibromyalgia all my adult life, and also from having treated many, many clients with FM when I worked as a massage therapist. Having said that though, I’m no expert, so if you have FM, you need to check in regularly with a rheumatologist or excellent GP and keep yourself informed. Musculoskeletal Australia (formerly Arthritis Victoria) is a great place to go for further information https://www.msk.org.au/fibromyalgia/.
Some of the recommended management techniques for fibromyalgia include mindfulness, meditation, breath awareness and training, exercise, staying calm and minimising anxiety and stress. And this is where tai chi and qigong come in.
Like any exercise, when you start, you take it easy. Take short steps, don’t sink too low, don’t turn too far. Keep all movements comfortable, easy even. When you first learn tai chi, you are 100% focussed on where you put your foot, how to move your arms, which way to face. You are utterly present in the moment. While the movements may look easy, they are really quite hard to learn. You have to be very mindful. Focussing for an hour class can be very hard when you’re in pain. You might need to sit down for a break in the middle of class, or stop after half an hour and that’s fine. Tai chi is deceptive; you use far more energy than is obvious. So take care not to overdo it. Like any new exercise, you gradually build up your tolerance and you get better at it with practise.
Tai chi is often referred to as a moving meditation. Until you know enough of a form to be able to string together a few minutes worth of routine, you won’t experience the meditative aspect. It takes time to get to that point, so don’t be in a hurry. You may find that you achieve the meditative aspect more quickly with an easy qigong form like Professor Lin Housheng’s Shibashi Set One. You pretty much tick all the boxes with a form like this. The movements are synchronised with your breath, they are gentle, flowing, calming and strengthening. Plus this form is easy to follow along in mirror image, so you can watch a DVD or YouTube.
Above is a snippet of Shibashi Set 1 that I recorded in 2016. You can see the exhaustion in my face. I've since re-recorded this and don't look so tired! But this illustrates the point that the form can be performed gently and adapted to suit your needs. And with luck cats will join in.
It’s important to let yourself off the hook when learning. If you get frustrated with yourself for not remembering the moves soon enough, then you increase your stress and anxiety levels. If you overthink and worry about the moves, you basically trip yourself up and get in your own way. You don’t want to go to class and leave an hour later feeling frustrated. So let yourself off the hook. It’s okay that you don’t remember all the moves from week to week. It’s okay that you could only do half a class last week. It’s okay to take twice as long as you expected to learn the form. It doesn’t matter if your hand was turned up instead of turned down.
What’s important is that you made it to class, you engaged your brain in a really positive activity, you exercised your body gently and you focussed on your breath. Tai chi is all about the journey, not the destination, and so is fibromyalgia. It’s not going away, so the more tools in your toolkit for life you have, the better positioned you are to manage your body in a compassionate way. Stick with it and you’ll have a wonderful exercise art that is thoroughly enjoyable, that distracts you from your pain, and leaves you feeling calm and relaxed.