2011 Alumni Profile: O Chi Matters
If there were a line separating the practices of OT and t’ai chi, at least three UW-Madison alumni would deny it.
Sarah Nguyen (BSOT 2001), Kristi Rietz (BSOT 1975) and Terri Pelletteri (BSOT 1974) integrate their training and practice as occupational therapists with their practice in the ancient Asian martial art.
“T’ai chi trains focus and attention, awareness of direct experience, active relaxation, postural alignment, balance and other physical skills in the context of functional movement,” said Rietz. “The applications to daily living and interpersonal interactions are inherent in the practice itself.”
The holistic philosophies of OT and t’ai chi make a natural fit that each woman embraces and promotes in her own way.
Pellitteri practices and teaches t’ai chi outside of her professional practice but draws on its principles in her position at the Mental Health Center of Dane County. Nguyen practices t’ai chi and has extended its physical benefits to her aging clients. Rietz will go a step further by teaching t’ai chi to other occupational therapists.
Pelletteri worked as an OT for 10 years after finishing school but hadn’t considered t’ai chi for her lifestyle or career.
“In the mid-70s, a colleague introduced me to t’ai chi. I tried it and thought ‘this is just way too slow’,” Pelletteri said with a laugh.
But during a period of her life after shifting her professional path to community health and training, she looked to t’ai chi again as a way of getting through an exhausting family situation.
“I needed to find a different way of being in the world,” she said. “It’s good for understanding the body, mind and relationships.”
In her community health work, Pelletteri is mindful of the most important principle of t’ai chi – the balance of mind and body around a center, as represented in the iconic yin-yang symbol.
“I use that practice a lot in my work,” she said.
Nguyen discovered t’ai chi during her field experience when she met her future husband. It was a natural fit with her schooling when she learned about OT as a holistic model of health care that blends the mind, body and spirit, she said.
“None of the other health sciences were acknowledging that in training health professionals,” Nguyen said. “That’s why I was drawn to OT and why I’m drawn to t’ai chi.”
In her experience as a clinician working for elder care and rehabilitation companies, Nguyen has often seen her clients struggle to find balance between leisure, work and self-care.
“I have seen in patients that their inability to self-care affects their mind, body and sense of self-worth,” she said. “I feel free to address all those elements as an OT and using t’ai chi is helpful.”
Nguyen encourages stroke survivors and people with disabilities who are trying to regain their physical balance to also find balance in their minds.
“You need to balance and ground yourself mentally so that you can balance the physical,” she explains. “Out of the stillness, then you move.”
When Nguyen was working for a senior center, she adopted an exercise group and incorporated t’ai chi into their sessions.
“People came up to me and were grateful,” she said. “It was one of the most fun things I’ve done with OT and t’ai chi.”
Rietz, who manages the Wellness Program at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison, hopes to increase awareness of these and other benefits of t’ai chi among occupational therapists across the country.
She and a handful of colleagues are hoping to get approval for their proposal to lead a “Tai Chi Fundamentals Program” at the 2012 AOTA conference.
“I've discovered that t’ai chi is a natural fit for occupational therapy practice in that it is relevant for many occupational therapy goals in a variety of occupational performance areas,” she said. “It has been an exciting addition to my personal practice, as well as my occupational therapy practice, as I have witnessed significant changes in people's lives, including my own.”