When now-Tai Chi for Health Senior Trainer and Medical Qigong instructor Bobby Calhoun first experienced arthritis symptoms in the 1980s, it was like a light switch turning on overnight.
“I just woke up one morning and I could hardly move,” she recalls. “I could barely get out of bed. I had to wiggle just my toes first.” Once Bobby was able to visit the doctor, she was given a general “arthritis” diagnosis and was prescribed Tylenol to deal with the pain.
At the time, Bobby, who was working for General Motors, had to perform repetitive standing and sitting at her work, and found that while the Tylenol somewhat dulled the pain, it did nothing to prevent the painful deterioration of her joints. Her whole life changed – pre-diagnosis, she had always been active, enjoying activities such as roller skating, downhill skiing and going to the gym, but then found that it was too painful to keep up her old lifestyle.
“Way back then, when I was in lots of pain, I initially felt sorry for myself,” Bobby says. “I just felt so sad, every day, because I could hardly move and go to work. When I got to work, I would pretend that everything was okay, but I was in so much pain. My coworkers didn’t know what was going on and I was so unhappy. I eventually realized I needed to take the attention off of myself and focus on others.”
Volunteering and Giving Back
Bobby began to volunteer at the Arthritis Foundation in 1996, helping to host various health fairs that provided information about how to lead a better life with arthritis. She enjoyed manning a booth and talking with others who experienced similar symptoms to her own, encouraging them to read the materials and to make healthier changes in their lives.
Bobby also began participating in the Arthritis Self-Management Program (then co-sponsored by Stanford University), which took place in a series of six-week classes where participants would work with her and other members from the Arthritis Foundation to develop techniques to deal with pain and to discuss topics such as appropriate medication use and healthy eating. She found that she enjoyed becoming a leader in the arthritis community, helping others to develop healthier, personalized plans to conquer everyday battles.
“It was a way to help myself and to get this vital information to other people to help them change their lives,” says Bobby.
Making Changes in Her Own Life
She began taking her own advice to heart. After dulling her symptoms with Tylenol for about a year, Bobby visited a specialist who diagnosed her with psoriatic arthritis, enabling her to take medication to become more mobile and significantly decrease her pain levels. Volunteering at the Arthritis Foundation also gave her access to information that helped her make the decision to change her lifestyle – permanently – to make more holistic living choices.
“Once I began volunteering, I had access to the Arthritis Today magazine,” says Bobby. “It made me start paying attention to what I was eating and I saw that there were foods to avoid and foods to eat that would help with my symptoms. Once I began changing my diet, I noticed within a few days that my pain levels were decreasing.”
An Introduction to Tai Chi
In 2005, the Arthritis Foundation was contacted by Dr. Paul Lam, who developed the Tai Chi for Health programs, which incorporate medical knowledge and studies to improve health through exercise. Most notably, Dr. Lam’s programs include the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommended program, Tai Chi for Arthritis, which many organizations around the world also support. Bobby was contacted by the Arthritis Foundation to see if she would like to learn Tai Chi to eventually teach others.
“I don’t know what Tai Chi was,” says Bobby. “But they were persistent, and I began my training with Sifu Dan Jones, who was one of Dr. Lam’s Master Trainers. After two days of training, I realized: I love this!”
“Tai Chi is a slow moving exercise that really relaxed me,” says Bobby. “And to me, when I could relax, it was so powerful. I read that stress is the cause of all diseases and it can be one of the main things that can cause physical problems or make them worse. But Tai Chi helps me to relax as I focus on my breathing and movements. You’ll notice that when you’re letting the breath flow in and out of your nose, you’re letting go of tension.”
Tai Chi was also beneficial to Bobby due to its muscle-strengthening properties. “As long as you’re moving, especially if you’re standing and stepping slowly to the side and putting the weight on one foot, you’re building strength in your legs, and loosening the joints. It’s not just one benefit – it’s a combination of things,” says Bobby. “When I found it was helping me, I wanted to share it with as many people as possible.”
Becoming a Champion of Yes
After her initial training session was complete, Bobby led a 10-12 week class at an assisted living center, so she could earn her teaching certification. “I was saying to myself, ‘I love this, I love what I’m doing,’” Bobby recalls. She found that she loved encouraging others to learn to just move and focus on feeling better mentally and physically.
“Sometimes people get caught up in the sequence of movements,” says Bobby. “They’ll get upset because they don’t remember what comes next. But I tell them to follow me and to focus on what they are feeling and to let that be the main benefit of the practice. I stress that in my classes because I remind them that everybody is learning. I have now taught Tai Chi for Arthritis for 10 years, and I tell my classes that I’m still learning too.”
Bobby continues to learn – she earned her Tai Chi for Diabetes certification from Dr. Lam in 2006, and also has certifications for Seated Tai Chi for Arthritis, Tai Chi for Energy and Fall Prevention and Tai Chi for Rehabilitation. She practices various forms of Tai Chi, including Sun Style 73, Chen Style 36, the Combined 42 forms, and Yang 24. She is also currently taking the Silk Reeling and Depth classes offered by Dan Jones, who continues to be her mentor.
Bobby teaches classes primarily in the Detroit area to underserved populations, including individuals at assisted living facilities, recreation centers – and she even teaches a class for those with Alzheimer’s.
“It’s one thing to teach Tai Chi to a group of people with minor aches and pains,” says Bobby, “but when you teach it to the elderly who have mobility problems, it turned into my passion. I encourage everyone to practice a mind and body focus during the movements. No matter what condition you have, whatever movement you can do, you can still benefit from it.”
Bobby was recently featured on USA Network’s Change Maker vignettes, which feature stand-out individuals who help to bring socially-responsible change to the world in a uniquely-compelling way. To take a Tai Chi for Arthritis class in the comfort of your own home, you can order Dr. Lam’s Tai Chi for Arthritis DVD Combo Movements 1 Through 12 by visiting our store!
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