HealthBeat: Former Concord police chief finds and shares strength through tai chi

Last modified: 7/29/2013 11:57:06 AM
When it comes to tai chi, Bill Halacy has a pretty good sense of humor.

“So we’re pigeon-toed and bow-legged, our pelvis is tucked, our chest is caved in and we have a double chin,” he said, assuming the correct posture for practicing the ancient art, demonstrating for a class of first-timers.

It might be worth a giggle or two, but the posture is much better than what Halacy was told 40 years ago he’d be in at this point in his life: sitting, all the time, confined to a wheelchair.

Instead, he teaches tai chi and practices acupuncture, a second career for the 65-year-old former chief of the Concord Police Department.

Before Halacy was the chief of the department, he was just a young man, looking for a job. Part of his application with the department included a physical. After the doctor noticed something amiss, tests revealed Halacy had a rare bone disorder – polyostotic fibrous displasia.

(Our bones are constantly regenerating, but in fibrous displasia, the new tissue is soft and spongy, not hard. Picture swiss cheese, but instead of holes, there are soft spots. The weakened bones can bend, and if they bend too far, they fracture. Monostotic fibrous displasia means only one bone is affected; a diagnosis of “polystotic” means several of Halacy’s bones are weakened.)

The orthopedist who officially issued the diagnosis predicted the then 32-year-old would be on crutches for a decade and in a wheelchair after that.

“There’s no treatment and there’s no cure. I just walked away from the office and said, ‘I’m not doing that,’ ” Halacy said.

He turned to yoga to manage the stiffness and constant pain he felt. In 1996, he was first introduced to tai chi, and he’s been using that to manage his disease ever since. He his practice when he retired from police work in 1999.

As his interest in it deepened, his teacher told him if he really wanted to understand tai chi, he should study acupuncture. The oldest acupuncture school in the country is in Boston, so Halacy began commuting, taking about half the normal course load of a student that completes the program in three years.

“I thought I would stop going when it stopped being interesting. I spent six years going,” he said.

Even after finishing the program, he didn’t expect to turn it into a second career. But in the last year, during which students practice acupuncture on patients with supervision from a teacher, he found a way to help people like himself.

“I enjoyed helping people who had diagnoses for which there are no Western treatments. We treat chronic pain patients who go through surgery, back patients who have had vertebrae fused, and after, when the pain’s still there, the doctors says, ‘I can’t help you anymore.’ I’ve found a way to help them,” Halacy said.

So how does it work? That’s not exactly clear yet, but Halacy says tai chi and acupuncture work in the same ways.

When you see tai chi practitioners waving their hands around, looking a bit like slow-motion traffic cops, they’re activating the same points in their wrists, elbows, chest and back that are often the focus of acupuncture treatments.

For Halacy, the slight, almost impossible to detect shifting of weight from one leg to another is also likely responsible for the effective management of his displasia. Putting all his weight on one leg strengthens the bones just like weight-lifting can but in a slower and more controlled way.

In 2009, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of tai chi, looking at 36 research reports with a total of 3,799 participants, all of them over the age of 65. Of 18 articles that reviewed the practice’s effect on balance and falls, the results in 16 showed significant improvement to patients’ balance. People were able to move from sitting to standing to walking faster and less precariously after studying tai chi, according to one study; coordination and the ability to climb boxes improved significantly for practitioners in another study. Arthritis patients reported significantly less stiffness and pain.

Anecdotally, Halacy and his wife, Peg, haven’t been sick – not even a cold or flu – in years. They don’t suffer from allergies, and neither do regular clients.

So, why is it not being practiced by people with complaints ranging from arthritis to hay fever?

Halacy thinks it’s because Western culture doesn’t value the art of slowing down.

“The benefits are so extraordinary, and the cost is so little. But it takes time, every day and in the long term, and I think that’s probably the answer. There’s almost 100 movements to learn and if you went to a class once a week, you could probably learn them in a year,” he said. “It’s not like yoga, where the instructor walks you through every movement for the whole class. You’ll learn three movements and then go home and you have to practice them every day. The onus is on you.”

Last Monday, in the first session of a new class at Sage Wellness Center and Spa in Pittsfield, Halacy led seven participants (and one reporter, yours truly on the front lines) in a step-by-step demonstration of several postures and movements. But yes, the onus is on them to notice and correct their own posture. Are their toes pointed in? Are their knees collapsing? Are their pelvises tucked?

I wish I could say I practiced our seven-move cycle every day since, from “Hands Dancing like Clouds” to “Fair Lady Working the Shuttle.”

But, alas. I didn’t.

Aside from the shaky quads, by the end of class I definitely noticed increased warmth in my hands, which Halacy said was due to opening the capillaries and general energy pathways in the wrist. My fingers may have felt slightly more deft at the keyboard in the office later, but I could have imagined that.

If only Halacy could proactively cure my allergies this summer through that one 60-minute class.

But, he can’t. The onus, it seems, is on me. And Claritin.

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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