Byline: ALASTAIR CRAIG
THINK Tai Chi and many people have visions of an Oriental park at dawn, not a Tyneside hall.
But the discipline so popular in China is fast becoming a means of supplementary therapy for dozens of conditions in the UK.
And one health group in the region has launched sessions to harness the proven health benefits connected to the deep breathing, relaxation and flowing movements of the ancient martial art.
The National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society's North East Volunteer Group supports sufferers from Berwick to Teesside, helping to bring people together, generate funding and raise awareness.
Every Friday morning at Age Concern's Newcastle base in MEA House, Ellison Place, dozens of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) sufferers take part in beginner and intermediate classes led by Tai Chi instructor, Nick Waller.
His pupils have described how Tai Chi has changed their lives, by both easing their painful joints and improving their morale.
Nick, who runs the North East Kung Fu group, said: "Some people become a bit demoralised by the condition and let it take over their lives. I teach them that you have to take control of the disease and not let it take control of you.
"It's not just about the movements which can make the joints more supple, it's about having a good philosophy on life and a good state of mind.
"I've had pupils who have been able to return to work after the Tai Chi classes because they feel so much better in themselves. That's the ultimate result for us.
"It's nice to see people's confidence and self-esteem lifted, but we also teach people simple things like using your whole body to move, for example when opening doors, rather than putting the whole strain on wrists and other joints.
"There's also a great social element to the classes and a common goal to meet likeminded people and improve their well-being."
The North East Volunteer Group, led by chairman Eleanor Houliston, works in tandem with the Rheumatology Unit at Newcastle's Freeman Hospital, fundraising and publicising the centre's work.
Eleanor, of Kenton Bankfoot, Newcastle, was diagnosed with RA six years ago and the retired local government officer was determined to raise the profile of what is sometimes the forgotten disease.
It is estimated that one in every 250 people in the North East have RA.
Eleanor, 63, said: "We want to make people aware as well that RA is not just an old people's condition, it can strike at any age, including very young children.
"The Tai Chi classes are proving very successful and we'd love to get more RA sufferers along because they can really help. As a group we are there to help all patients suffering with RA but we also work very closely with the Freeman Rheumatology team and assist them in any way we can from a patients point of view. The mutual respect is wonderful.
"We also have the wonderful research team at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle led by Professor John Isaacs.
"Tai Chi fits in well with our group's aims of being supportive to each other and helping as many people in the region with RA as possible and to develop the social aspect of the group.
"It's so important that we raise understanding of RA in this area, and link with medical professionals to educate people about what RA is and what they can do to find help and support."
Pam Boyes, 55, of Gosforth, Newcastle, is a regular attender of the classes and is thriving.
The retired nurse was diagnosed with RA in 2004. She said: "Tai Chi makes me feel better overall, in myself. That's the best thing that I've noticed. Just feeling more relaxed and at the same time having more energy. On the practical side, I'm more aware of how to open doors using my whole body which causes less pain than using just your arms."
Retired teacher Anne Scadeng, of Jesmond, Newcastle, was struck by RA six years ago. …