by Tass Bell
My name is Tass Bell and I am disabled. I went to my first Tai Chi class about 5 months ago. Ten years ago I was an avid windsurfer, swimmer and dancer, passionate about gardening and walking in the countryside. I had occasional short bouts of back pain but had always been able to overcome them. Then came a two year stretch where the pain was not only constant but steadily increased in intensity and caused me to become more and more crooked. The Chiropractic care I received during this time did not solve the problem and an MRI scan finally revealed a prolapsed disc tangled in my spinal cord. I was warned against pregnancy and surgery seemed to be the only option.
The operation that I had to put this right left me paralysed from the waist down. I came round from the anaesthetic with the impression that I was pinned to the bed. My legs were dead, lifeless weights which would not do as they were told. I felt like a mermaid with a leaden tail. The sudden blissful lack of pain, however, seemed to enable me to view my condition with an extraordinary surreal detachment, enhanced perhaps by the immensely powerful drugs the doctors were giving me. I decided there and then that I would not accept that I would never walk again without a fight. I somehow knew that if I did not confront this situation immediately, I would spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. And so began my long journey of healing.
I soon realised that somewhere deep inside my leaden limbs, there was still a tiny spark of hazy energy. Throughout my time in hospital almost every waking moment was spent attempting to connect with this energy, to use it to try to make something move. I would tense muscles in my imagination to keep the memory of movement alive. Even at this early stage, I instinctively knew that these memories were a vital link to my past mobility. They were indeed my only link, and all I had to work on. My own muscles wasted away at an unbelievable rate.
After many days (and nights) of willing my legs to move, electric shocks started to crackle spasmodically down stretches of nerves. The pain of these shocks was excruciating, and though nothing would move, I could vividly feel them on the inside and they were most certainly a sign of life. After ten days, one of my big toes moved a fraction, and I knew I was on my way.
The day finally came for my return home in a wheelchair. I
had been so looking forward to it but it was such a desperate
shock. Reality came crashing down as I realised how many things
I couldnt do. Hospital had been so safe. I had had a bell
to summon help at a moments notice. Everything was done
for me by the teams of wonderful nurses. Now even the simplest
things were difficult. Everything was so high up. I couldnt
reach. The only bathroom and loo were upstairs, and I couldnt
get into my much loved garden. I couldnt even turn over
in bed. In my little single hospital bed I had a frame to keep
the blankets off my legs. The phenomenal amount of strength needed
just to drag a leg across the bed, let alone lift it, was beyond
me. The list of things I couldnt do was endless and for
the first time I began to feel truly vulnerable. I had no
Fortunately soon afterwards I was introduced to Jessica Macbeth, my first healer - what an extraordinary woman. She knew nothing about me when I met her and said very little, preferring to "give me the once over" and feel for herself. I remained fully clothed and she didnt touch me. She passed her hands over me a few inches from my body and, when they were immediately over the point of my operation, they shot up. She said that she had never felt such an intense healing energy which was at the same time so chaotic. Because of my own internal healing experience and the sensation I had felt of an electrical charge, I could clearly relate to what she said. She explained that she could feel inside the body and had been able to since childhood. She then told me that I must paint my toenails the most beautiful and brightest colour that I could find. When I asked her why, she said that she wanted the first sight of my feet in the morning to make me smile. She sensed (rightly at the time) that I hated my scrunched-up feet and told me that this would not help them get better or allow the energy to flow in. She then proceeded to draw my short-circuiting energy down my legs and into my feet. I could feel it surge down my legs so vividly that I knew that I had reached the next stage of my journey. I gradually learnt to channel healing energy, to locate and awaken my sleeping nerves, and create my first minute movements. My legs gained their first hints of muscle. The fact that I had no broken bones or structural damage meant that I could get up onto crutches with only the faintest glimmer of muscle in my legs. Despite the enormous effort it took to get about, the psychological difference it made being able to talk and interact with people face to face was striking. People dont know how to react to someone in a wheelchair. They tend to be apprehensive and dont know whether they should speak to you, or even if you can speak at all. On crutches people assume that you have a temporary injury and crack jokes. When I progressed to a walking stick, I walked very inelegantly and I was once again regarded with embarrassment. When I discarded the stick, reactions changed once more. I am at my most unsteady when walking across a crowded room. If people dont know me they automatically assume that Im drunk. When I have a stick they make way for me. The same is true of crossing the road. Without a stick people drive straight at me, expecting me to break into a run, cursing me. With a stick they slow down and cheerfully wave me across. Going through life appearing so able and yet being so unstable made me feel very exposed and insecure. The whole process is, however giving me a fascinating insight into disability and the way the disabled are treated.
As soon as I was up on crutches, exercise of a more active kind became possible and I started to swim again which also gave me my first chance of aerobic exercise, so important for health, strength and stamina. The moment that I discovered that I could dance with two sticks was another major breakthrough. I had been finding parties and gigs emotionally traumatic. I could hardly bear to see other people dancing; I was so consumed with envy. But now I could join in and enjoy them again. I have also developed and adapted my own series of exercises based on yoga to help strengthen my muscles and maintain flexibility, particularly of the spine. I have done these day in and day out for eight years.
None of this, however, seemed to be helping the development of my calves and toes. Calves hold the shock absorbing, lifting, springing and balancing muscles. The lack of these muscles prevent you from doing so much. It makes gravity seem twice as strong, almost as though some force were pressing you down and making you incredibly heavy. I decided that what I needed was some supervised gym sessions to build these muscles. However, whilst on holiday I had a consultation with a highly respected Chinese doctor called Professor Ye. This was to radically alter my plans. I didnt tell Professor Ye about my medical past before his examination. He felt my pulses, looked surprised and told me that I had the pulses of an old person. He said I had a very strong body but that it seemed exhausted. We talked a little of my history and he asked me what exercises I was doing. I told him, and explained that I was about to start a therapeutic exercise programme at the gym. He was happy about the swimming and yoga but was quite adamant that I shouldnt use gym equipment to develop my muscles. He said that it would put too much strain on me and could only reinforce the muscles which were already strong. These strong muscles would then stifle the embryonic muscles and lessen their chance of developing. He showed me some very fluid exercises and told me that I would benefit far more from a discipline like Tai Chi. He then correctly diagnosed weakness in my digestive system which is also badly affected by my paralysis. He used acupuncture to treat this with such impressive results that I determined to follow his advice.
Here are some of the things that I could barely do at the time of my first Tai Chi Class:
Stand on one leg.
I wondered how on earth I would fare.
And so September came, and with it the introductory class. Before we started I spoke to Pete Morris, briefly, of my fear and explained about my virtually paralysed toes. He told me that in Tai Chi you are not meant to need to use your toes in order to balance because you are so centred. He explained to the group how Tai Chi enabled energy to flow around the body and helped to clear blockages. He spoke about the minor muscles which are used and developed in Tai Chi but not in most other forms of exercise, echoing the words of Professor Ye.
After some general explanations of the principles of rooting,
sticking and yielding, and a demonstration of the Short Form,
we started with warm up exercises. I knew almost immediately
that it was right for me. I also knew that I couldnt do
it; I kept toppling over. The most difficult
Next we worked together in pairs to experience push and yield. I was to positively encourage somebody to push me on the shoulders. I had spent eight years avoiding this, fiercely protecting my own personal space. And then, to cap it all, came sticking. We had to shut our eyes and allow someone to lead us around. There was no time to explain my uneasiness to these strangers the weird paradox of my seeming ability and my being continually on the brink of overbalancing. My eight year fortress of taboos containing my greatest fears and anxieties was being pushed, and it had to yield. Down crumbled the walls, out flowed the tears. The frustration was overwhelming. I instinctively sensed the enormity of Tai Chis potential for me but felt so unsteady and incapable.
What I didnt know then was that with extensive practice, I would gradually be able to find the centre and overbalance less. Nor did I realise that perversely, having paralysed toes could be an advantage, not giving me the option of being far off centre.I did, nonetheless, feel the power of Tai Chis energy, so with some trepidation and immense excitement I signed up for the course.
The power I felt whilst doing Tai Chi exercises seemed to come from the same source as healing energy. I believe that this energy exists all around us; a kind of life-force making things grow and thrive, and that healers act as a conduit for it. The power comes through them, not from them. I have spent time every day since my operation going inside my body to heal, and although this has been an intense occupation, I have always done it either sitting or lying down. Tai Chi has enabled me to go into this passive interior space and use it in an actively dynamic way, experiencing its force whilst in motion.
The poetic imagery of the moves enhance its charm, giving me a rich new vocabulary for visualisation. Of all the images I have encountered on this journey to health, I think perhaps the bubbling spring is the most captivating. Mentally, internally, the healing image of a bubbling spring being always there, available, is extremely sustaining. It conjures up eddies and swirls, somehow benevolent and merry, yet constant, unfailing and vital. But it is more than a visual image. Physically it has given me a vastly greater understanding of balance. I can clearly feel the vibrant energy pulsing up through me when I stand completely centred. I can never before have been truly centred whilst on my feet, except perhaps as a child. (Is that where they get all their energy from?)
I find the exercises that encompass and gather energy in Tai Chi extraordinarily empowering. With feet firmly planted and the spring bubbling away I feel invigorated and I am given the strength and courage to do the swings and steps. When I am tentative I overbalance, yet when I let go and dispel my fear I begin to find my centre and The Form starts to flow. I am able to feel new nerves sparking and minuscule muscles coming to life in the midst of movement. It is very exciting and fills me with optimism for the future. It has been remarkable how, whenever I am losing heart and feeling that I have reached the limit of my improvement, something else comes along just in time. The relief is indescribable and the enthusiasm immense. I may have driven everyone in the class mad with continual questions over the weeks and seemed sickeningly keen, but the exasperated, "You're so full of confidence!" from a fellow player one week really brought home how much has changed.
I no longer feel so vulnerable walking down the street at night on my own or in the country during the day. Even crossing a crowded room full of strangers is less daunting. I still know I cant run, or even walk fast but I am regaining my pre-operative confidence. The martial aspect of Tai Chi, I think, helps the sense of self possession and poise (albeit a wobbly poise in my case!) If you exude confidence you seem less likely to attract trouble, and if you do attract it you feel more able to deal with it. You are centred, standing tall and in control.
Tai Chi is not only giving me this inner mental strength,
the physical changes have been amazing. The entire way that I
move and transfer weight during everyday activities has been
It is now just over a year since my first Tai Chi class and my muscles continue to strengthen gradually. I find it amazing how many exercises I can now do without overbalancing - many that I struggled with at first though swinging still gets me every time. Having completed the short form I am enormously enjoying playing the whole form without having to worry about new moves. I had the great pleasure of joining the Summer Gathering where I experienced meditation and push hands for the first time.
Push hands involved a lot of exercises concentrating on rooting which have had a wonderfully positive effect on my stability. This, combined with meditation, has enabled me to go deeper whilst playing the form, feeling the dynamics of the sequence which, in turn, has helped me move around my spine and stay centred. This means that I can use the flow to help master the more impossible moves like golden roosters and the various kicks and swivels.
When I am alone and can lose myself in the form, I come close to the sensation of grace and balance I used to be so familiar with. It really makes me quite high.