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The Therapeutic Effect of Tai Chi in the Healing Process of HIV

by Carolyn J

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ABSTRACT


The aim of this qualitative study was to investigate from a Transpersonal perspective, the effect of Tai chi on participants' perception of their health and wellbeing, with reference to their psychological state prior to diagnosis and the challenges posed by living with the HIV condition. 11 people with an HIV-positive diagnosis took part, attending weekly classes of Tai chi over approximately 8 months. Participants were self-selected, and in the main actively pursuing a health strategy which included other holistic therapies. Data was obtained by means of individual interviews, a questionnaire and focus group. The main benefits of Tai chi that emerged were its energizing, calming, grounding, centreing and enjoyable aspects.   Findings further pointed to additional benefits incurred in the learning process of Tai chi, such as patience, acceptance of things as they are, and an increase in physical, emotional, mental and spiritual awareness. Drug combination therapy prevented accurate conclusions regarding the effect of Tai chi on physical symptoms. However findings suggested that Tai chi did effect greater insight, attunement and integration on all levels of being.

SUMMARY

The aim of this qualitative study was to investigate from a Transpersonal perspective, the effect of Tai chi on participants' perception of their health and wellbeing, with reference to their psychological state prior to diagnosis and the challenges posed by living with the HIV condition. The enquiry is framed holistically, exploring the possibility that a physical condition may contain a message for personal growth, and whether Tai chi can assist this healing process or 'making whole'.

The benefits of Tai chi are presented from the author's experience, together with an explanation of its philosophy and origins. Literature surveyed covers research studies involving Tai chi; the healing tradition of Tai chi; the 'mindbody' concept; psycho(neuro)immunology and HIV; the minority
alternative view of HIV; and long-term survival with HIV/AIDS.

11 people (9 men and 2 women, aged between 29-57, 8 white European and 3 British Asian) with an HIV-positive diagnosis took part, attending weekly Tai chi classes lasting 1-1 and a half hours, over approximately 8 months. All the men stated homosexual preference, the women heterosexual. Classes
involved learning chi kung (breathing with movement), guided relaxation in the initial stages, lasting 10-15 minutes, the Tai chi Chuan Long Yang Form (a set sequence of slow movement), and occasional discussion of philosophy and symbolism of the Form as it related to daily life.

The design of the study took the form of qualitative action research, sensitive to the phenomenological/experiential aspects by exploring the 'lived experience' of the participants. Data was obtained by means of individual interviews, a questionnaire and focus group. Participants were
self-selected, and in the main actively pursuing a health strategy which included other holistic therapies.

Analysis was inductive, as in Grounded theory, discovering patterns arising through a series of analytical steps. Findings suggested that in the years prior to diagnosis participants were immersed in a lifestyle/mental attitude that would stress the immune system, manifesting mainly as overwork or a
hectic lifestyle, indulging in risky behaviour, or being in relationships that were detrimental to their self-esteem. The causes of stress derived from a fragile sense of self-worth, feeling powerless against familial or societal pressures, depending on outside approval for their self identity, feeling they had to comply with familial/societal expectations to ensure acceptance and recognition, and tension arising from being homosexual or in the women's case, feeling they had to care for others before themselves.

Living and coming to terms with HIV effected significant changes, namely taking action to remove themselves from stressful activities or relationships, acknowledging themselves and their own needs more, taking time to enjoy life, and exploring new avenues especially holistic/complementary/spiritual. Factors that accelerated these changes were mainly choosing to live, having to deal with illness, and
holistic/complementary therapies. Every single person felt strongly that they could affect their own healing. Everyone expressed clarity on what they felt their own personal healing path entailed, mainly: living a healthy/balanced/peaceful lifestyle, listening to their body more instead of trying to control it, paying attention to their own needs, acknowledging and expressing their feelings, and exploring their spirituality.

The main benefits of Tai chi that emerged were its energising, calming, grounding, centreing and enjoyable aspects. Findings further pointed to additional benefits incurred in the learning process of Tai chi, such as patience, acceptance of things as they are, and an increase in physical,
mental, and spiritual awareness. Drug combination therapy (9 people were receiving medical treatment) prevented conclusions regarding the effect of Tai chi on physical symptoms, although the two participants who were not receiving medical treatment remained healthy throughout. Findings suggested that Tai chi did effect greater insight, attunement and integration on all levels of being. Regarding the imagery and symbolism of the Tai chi Form, people felt that it helped them relate Tai chi to world/life/spiritual aspects; that it helped to broaden the mind and see things in a different
way, to come into the body and focus; and that the natural images conveyed a sense of calm and inner peace. Everyone felt that Tai chi would be a beneficial therapy to offer to people living with HIV, the main reasons being that it helped to maintain wellbeing, reduce stress, increase awareness, focus on the real issues of life, that it was a way of helping yourself, and was energizing and calming at the same time. From a Transpersonal perspective, it was further concluded that Tai chi may assist
the process of individuation towards the level of centaur, as defined by Wilber, in that the inward focus and movement gradually engender increasing awareness towards integration of mind and body, being in the present, and feeling part of a larger whole.

The study included a short comparative study of changes in the energy field before and after Tai chi as shown by the new and innovative GDV technique (developed by a Russian biophysicist, Professor Konstantin Korotkov). This technique uses optic technology and an electrode system with specialised
computer software, to create a high intensity electric field around an object. Any electrical properties, emission characteristics, gas evaporation or energy exchange with the environment are reflected in a glow around the object that can be recorded and measured. Korotkov uses the Su-Jock system of acupuncture developed by Park (1978) to construct from parameter analysis of the finger images, an image of the whole energy-field. Research has suggested implications for advanced medical diagnostics and monitoring the effectiveness of treatment. The images in this Tai chi study showed a significant difference in the energy field of participants after Tai chi - from weak, fragmented images towards a brighter and more unified shape.

The study was limited: in scope and size; by the fact that there was no controlled monitoring; and that several factors may have influenced the outcome eg. unstable health associated with HIV, the simultaneous use of other holistic therapies, drug combination therapy and its side-effects,
work and lifestyle, the practice of meditation, and that deeper or longer-term benefits only emerge over time with regular practice.

However, the main benefits reported by participants did accord with those associated with the healing tradition of Tai chi and research studies involving Tai chi, namely a sense of calm, wellbeing, focus and renewed energy. The main issues characterising participants' Self identity prior to diagnosis corresponded with the 'Mr Likeable' persona of Leiphart's extensive psychotherapy study relating to HIV/AIDS in 1983 (Serinus, 1987, p77) and the themes of powerlessness (Myss & Shealey, 1987) and rejection and isolation associated with HIV and AIDS (Kubler Ross, 1987). The healing
process in relation to HIV as it was perceived by participants also corresponded with characteristics of long-term survivors drawn from various studies and the accounts of profound change reported by long-term survivors themselves.

Whilst no findings in this study were conclusive, implications for future research lie in the potential investigation of the psycho/physiological correspondence inherent in other conditions and the particularities of the healing process relating to each; professional/patient collaboration in the
healing process; and the effectiveness of holistic/complementary therapies in partnership with medical treatment. The GDV kirliangraphic computer technique may present prospects for verification in all these areas, monitored closely over longer periods of time.

This article was first published in the November Issue of the International Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.

Full detailed study available for reading at CCPE (Centre for Counselling & Psychotherapy Education, Beauchamp Lodge, 2 Warwick Avenue, London W2 6NE Tel: 0171 266 3006, at the Immune Development Trust (90-92 Islington High Street, London N1 8EG Tel: 0171 704 1555) or from Carolyn Howell.


                      Howell, MA Transpersonal Counselling & Psychotherapy, Cert. Tai chi Teacher.
                                (Tel: 0171 241 2817, e-mail: carolynjhowell@hotmail.com )

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