Local martial arts master empowers students with Parkinson’s disease to recover the brain-body connection
Barefoot and jumping up and down on the hardwood floor of Sensei Sithan Pat’s dojo, which he built next to his Santa Cruz home several years ago, I feel like an 8-year-old at recess. After 45 seconds, my calves begin to say “excuse me?” but I keep bouncing, conscious of my companions: a handful of Pat’s regular students, who, unlike myself, are hardly new to tai chi and martial arts.
“Smile!” Pat reminds us, as we picture all of the stress and tightness draining from our limbs and out of our lips, which make the sound of “chiiii!” with each exhale.
“It’s like a whip—explosive—but it doesn’t hurt your joints, because everything is from here,” says Pat, motioning to his core. “You let go, out. It’s liberation.”
This is Fa Li, the explosion of chi, or energy, he says, in an accent inflected with French—“Fa, in Chinese, meaning to let go, and Li, meaning energy.” After an hour spent in Pat’s Chi Power Arts session—which unfolds in various movements of increasing complexity—I do believe I leave a fair amount of balled-up stress on the dojo floor.
Fit and compact at 47 years old, Pat—who is respectfully called “Sensei” by his students—runs seven miles every morning and practices tai chi and martial arts every day. Sitting in his home after the session, Pat explains his philosophies on healing the body and mind, on reviving one’s spirit and mastering oneself. And bit by bit, he reveals the riveting backstory that shaped him into the contradiction he is today—a sensei, or master of the highest ranking in martial arts, with a healer’s heart.
“If somebody comes to me and says ‘Sensei, I have a disease,’ I will look at him and say, ‘Yes, but you can do it,’” says Pat. “I don’t see him as a disabled person. I will treat him with compassion, but I will look at him as a person that is capable to come out of himself. And then I will treat him like he has four feet. So in that case, I push him to do stuff that he’s afraid of.”
This is his approach to teaching Howard Sherer, 62, a local man diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease five years ago, who began working with Pat a year and a half ago, both privately and in class, four times a week.
Affecting more than one million Americans, Parkinson’s disease—the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s—is a chronic, degenerative movement disorder involving the malfunction and death of vital nerve cells in the brain. Motor signs include tremors, stiffness of the limbs and trunk and postural instability that impairs balance and coordination.
“When I laid down on the floor, my shoulders would not touch the floor, and when I raised my arms up, my forearms would not touch the floor. Now they do,” says Sherer, speaking to me by phone from Helsinki. “So, range of motion, in terms of the stretching that we do, really has loosened up everything and really has helped out a lot. I’m not hunched over anywhere near where I was.”
Sherer was also having difficulty walking when he met Pat. “In my steps, the first step has been difficult for years, and now it’s not nearly as difficult, and sometimes not at all,” says Sherer. “The way that I get out of the frozen state is to bring my consciousness into the movement.” When leaving a stadium or auditorium, Sherer used to have to wait for everyone to leave before walking out. “Because when I’d stop, I couldn’t start again,” he says. Sherer is now able to walk in crowds.
“Howard became joyous, and he’s recovered at least 60 percent of his normal movement,” says Pat, who often stays up late thinking about ways to customize the Chi Power Arts practice to fit students’ individual needs—Sherer’s practice includes a warm-up with hard qi gong (to get the blood moving), tai chi, martial arts, then tai chi once more. “Then he goes home, the toxins go out, his spirit is back together, and he can go to Las Vegas with his wife for five days,” laughs Pat. “He is driving again. I’m so happy.”
Sherer’s success with tai chi is not an isolated case. In a controlled study by the Oregon Research Institute, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 195 patients with mild to moderate Parkinson’s were randomly assigned twice-weekly sessions of either tai chi, resistance training or stretching. After six months, those who did tai chi saw improved balance that was two times better than the resistance-training group and four times better than the stretching group. They also had fewer falls and slower rates of decline.
“What I notice more than anything else is that if I do not do tai chi for a week, after about three to five days without it I start deteriorating,” says Sherer. “It takes three to five days of tai chi to get better.”
Sherer credits his improvement to tai chi’s reinforcement of the mind-body connection, as the movements require focusing consciousness on specific areas of the body.
Along with intention, and le croyance in the universe of energy inside each of us, connecting us, says Pat, the movement of chi also moves toxins out of the body, including the chemicals of medications. “It all comes from inside,” says Pat. “The intestine, the liver. Sometimes students say, ‘I hurt my back.’ And I say, ‘Show me.’ And no, it’s not their back—it’s their kidney. So I say, ‘What did you eat lately? What did you drink? Have you been abusing something?’”
As a growing body of research supports tai chi as a promising addition to physical therapy for people with Parkinson’s, Pat’s following of all ages and levels of health continues to grow, too.
“Sensei Sithan is what I was looking for, because he’s a master fighter, and he’s a master tai chi artist, and he’s incorporated all of it,” says Chris, 47, a muscular surfer and martial arts fighter. “You don’t hear people talking about tai chi and martial arts [together], because they seem like they’re polar opposites.”
Diagnosed with an unknown neuromuscular disorder that keeps his muscles constantly agitated, Chris credits Pat for not only helping him improve his fight skills but also his range of motion and endurance—more effectively than any of the many physical therapies he’s tried.
Chi Power Arts, the discipline Pat has developed over the past nine years since coming to Santa Cruz, is an out-of-the-ordinary blend of fitness, tai chi, and martial arts—the latter which he incorporates to empower self confidence through self-defense skills. Exercise, American-style, gave Pat the idea to include fitness for a cardio workout, and tai Chi allows students to heal psychological traumas as well as injuries that may occur in martial arts and fitness. “The effectiveness in martial arts comes more with fluidity and graciousness than brutality,” says Pat. “You save your energy, and your consciousness. You are more aware of the mistakes of the other person. Then you may be aware of your deep self and you won’t hurt the person, because you know what is the power in you already, and you will walk in peace.”
But his emphasis on knowing one’s own power and not necessarily using it draws on 30 years of using his power as a fighter. With warrior ancestry—his Chinese great-grandfather was a general in the king’s army in Cambodia—Pat learned martial arts from his father and grandfather, and continued to practice after moving from his birthplace in Cambodia to Belgium at the age of 12. At 21, Pat lived in Japan for two years, studying kyokushinkai karate—a full-contact karate practice considered by many to be the fiercest there is. Through the ’80s, Pat practiced Thai boxing, kung fu wing chun and several other forms of fighting—even sword fighting in Belgium and Holland. “It was really rough, very brutal, no protection, nothing,” says Pat. “Everything was allowed, the elbow, the knee. I could fight in the parking lot, the ring, it depended on who organized the fight. So by those years of hardship, I understood that everything really hard will break.”
“I used to make fun of tai chi when I was about 30,” he says. But after traveling to China in 2004 and studying tai chi for almost two years—including six months spent in Mongolia studying shamanism—he realized its power. While the Western world associates tai chi with elderly people in a park, Pat says “real” tai chi incorporates running, cardio and stretching.
Pat’s elite fighting skills led him to work as a private body guard in France and the Czech Republic, and for five years as a soldier for NATO—a time of his life he does not like to talk about.
“During the army times, I never cried. I was numb, and I was emotionally not connected at all with people,” says Pat. “I always felt inside something in me that had to be something else other than this warrior in the wrong place, in the wrong situation. But actually, all of those experiences brought me to help. I always had a healer’s heart.”
For more information on Chi Power Arts visit chipowerarts.com. PHOTO: Sensei Sithan Pat (left) of Chi Power Arts at his home dojo on the Eastside of Santa Cruz where he teaches students, including Chayev Hong (right). KEANA PARKER