Tai chi class helps older adults with flexibility, balance, inner harmony
Bodies turn and arms unfold in slow, fluid movements as Karen Fischer leads a class at the Willmar Community Center through the disciplined steps of tai chi.
"Step to the right. Arms out. Palms out," Fischer intones. "Turn. Leg in. Turn. Leg out."
Her students concentrate silently on each of the ritual moves. Fischer isn't training a roomful of aspiring warriors. She's teaching older adults how to harness the ancient Chinese martial art of tai chi to benefit their health.
By the time the eight-week program concludes at the end of June, it's hoped the participants will be seeing some of the gains: increased flexibility and range of motion, better balance, and a renewed sense of harmony with their inner and outer selves.
"Once they learn it, they can do it whenever they want to," said Fischer, who's a nurse, certified massage therapist and tai chi instructor.
For centuries, tai chi reigned in Chinese culture as a unique discipline of meditation and self-defense. These days, though, it's not only the martially inclined who are drawn to its blend of the physical and the contemplative. Increasingly, tai chi is being used in a variety of health settings to help preserve and regain strength, flexibility and well-being.
Fischer, who works part time with the Atwater Living at Home Block Nurse Program, first learned two years ago about the benefits tai chi can offer for people with arthritis.
The concept "was totally new to me," she said. Intrigued, she decided to pursue training at Normandale Community College to learn more about it.
With its slow movements, tai chi is ideal for people whose arthritis might otherwise limit their ability to exercise, Fischer said.
"It strengthens the muscles," she said. "It's low-impact but it's cardiovascular. It moves the blood and oxygen through your body. If you continue with it, flexibility and stamina and posture will improve."
It can lower the risk of falling by improving balance and coordination, she said.
"It helps tone up the whole body," agreed LeAnne Freeman, director of the Willmar Community Center.
These findings are backed by published studies which have documented fewer falls, reduced pain, better overall functioning and increased quality of life among older adults who have been introduced to tai chi.
"Getting people active is so important," Freeman said. "I stress the quality of life issue so much."
When Fischer contacted her earlier this year about the possibility of teaching one or two tai chi classes at the community center, Freeman saw it as a good opportunity to offer something new.
Not everyone is able to, or wants to, engage in vigorous activity such as aerobics, she said. "We were looking for some alternatives of programs and activities to take place here. It's finding that fit and what people enjoy doing."
A dozen people signed up for Fischer's hour-long tai chi class, which started May 11 at the community center.
Chatter quieted as this week's class opened with a short warmup. Then the students settled into the hard work of mastering a series of basic tai chi moves carrying evocative names such as "single whip" and "waving hands in the clouds."
Fischer uses a curriculum developed by Dr. Paul Lam, a physician who worked with tai chi masters, rheumatologists and college professors to come up with a series of moves, based on Sun-style tai chi, that would be slow and not too strenuous yet beneficial for people with arthritis. Other series are tailored for diabetes and osteoporosis. There's even a version that can be done while seated in a chair or wheelchair.
Delores Griffin, 81, of Willmar is taking the class with her husband, Arthur. She has had two strokes and thought tai chi might help her improve her balance.
"It keeps you moving, otherwise you sit in the chair," she said. "The first few times you try it, it's hard. You really have to be thinking about everything."
In spite of its meditative pace, it's a workout, Freeman said. "When they get done, some of them are really sweating because they're concentrating so much."
Yet it's also relaxing, Fischer said.
"Your mind and your body are connected," she said. "You have to be aware of what you're doing. You need to focus on your breathing. You slow that breathing down and it calms your whole body."
She and Freeman hope to spark enough interest in tai chi to offer more classes and maybe even some intergenerational sessions.
"I'm hoping there will be a group willing to come back," Fischer said. "Everyone has said they've really enjoyed it."