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For older adults, benefits of Tai Chi abound

  • Leonida Weaver, 77, taught herself tai chi about nine years ago and has since become active in local classes. Here she leads part of a class at the Smile building in Concord this past week.

    Leonida Weaver, 77, taught herself tai chi about nine years ago and has since become active in local classes. Here she leads part of a class at the Smile building in Concord this past week.

  • Leonida Weaver taught herself tai chi about nine years ago and has since become active in local classes. Here Weaver closes her eyes to concentrate on her moves.<br/><br/>(GEOFF FORESTER Monitor staff)

    Leonida Weaver taught herself tai chi about nine years ago and has since become active in local classes. Here Weaver closes her eyes to concentrate on her moves.

    (GEOFF FORESTER Monitor staff)

  • Leonida Weaver practices her moves at a class.<br/><br/>(GEOFF FORESTER Monitor staff)

    Leonida Weaver practices her moves at a class.

    (GEOFF FORESTER Monitor staff)

  • Leonida Weaver taught herself tai chi about nine years ago and has since become active in local classes. Here she works on her moves during a class at the Smile building last week.<br/><br/>(GEOFF FORESTER Monitor staff)

    Leonida Weaver taught herself tai chi about nine years ago and has since become active in local classes. Here she works on her moves during a class at the Smile building last week.

    (GEOFF FORESTER Monitor staff)

  • Leonida Weaver, 77, taught herself tai chi about nine years ago and has since become active in local classes. Here she leads part of a class at the Smile building in Concord this past week.
  • Leonida Weaver taught herself tai chi about nine years ago and has since become active in local classes. Here Weaver closes her eyes to concentrate on her moves.<br/><br/>(GEOFF FORESTER Monitor staff)
  • Leonida Weaver practices her moves at a class.<br/><br/>(GEOFF FORESTER Monitor staff)
  • Leonida Weaver taught herself tai chi about nine years ago and has since become active in local classes. Here she works on her moves during a class at the Smile building last week.<br/><br/>(GEOFF FORESTER Monitor staff)

If you happen to end up behind Leonida Weaver in a long line at the grocery store, don’t be too alarmed when you notice her swaying, slowly, from side to side. If she’s using the proper form, she’ll keep her feet planted firmly on the ground while she shifts weight in the rest of her body from right to left – kind of like a bamboo tree in the breeze, she says.

“I had one occasion, I was at the checkout and I was doing it – and the girl behind me says, ‘You are making me dizzy,’ ” Weaver recalled. “And I said, ‘I’m sorry, I am practicing Tai Chi.’ ”

This 77-year-old Concord resident practices these exercises, rooted in ancient Chinese tradition, whenever and wherever she can: in the spacious fitness classroom at Concord Hospital’s Center for Health Promotion, in a corner of the house she shares with her son’s family and, yes, even while running errands. She bookends her days with meditation at dawn and before bed, and she peppers in Tai Chi principles during her daily routine – in a moment of stress, or when she’s trying to stay balanced on her way down a flight of stairs.

In Concord and across the country, Weaver and fellow seniors have turned to Tai Chi as a soothing way to keep their mind and body healthy, to prevent falls and, occasionally, to make new friends – all without breaking too much of a sweat.

Fulfilling a personal promise

Weaver (whose friends call her “Spark Plug” for her seemingly boundless energy) started formally practicing Tai Chi about nine years ago. But her interest in the art stretches back decades.

Her husband, now deceased, was in the military, and their family spent time in Hawaii and Taiwan. In both places, she would walk her son to school and, along the way, would admire the groups of older adults she saw exercising in public spaces.

“They were doing these gentle, gentle movements of the hand and feet – and their body is straight, like something is pulling your hair,” said Weaver, who grew up in the Philippines. “And these are older people! And I thought, that reminds me of the intricate and graceful steps of Philippine folk dancing.”

Impressed, Weaver told herself, “One of these days, I’m going to do all of those exercises.” At the time, she just didn’t know what those exercises were.

Eventually, the family settled down in Pennsylvania. When Weaver retired, she became connected with a program at a local senior center, and a friend suggested trying a new fitness class – soon, she realized she was doing the same movements she saw in the parks years earlier.

Since then, she’s remained faithful to her practice even when she wasn’t taking classes regularly. She moved to New Hampshire to be with her son’s family after her husband’s death in 2006, and she didn’t start classes locally until her daughter-in-law recommended trying the ones offered through the Concord Hospital Center for Health Promotion.

Not only does Weaver credit Tai Chi with keeping her in good health, she said it’s also had a “therapeutic effect.” Once she started taking her practice more seriously several years ago, she said it helped ease the grief she felt after losing her husband and taught her to live more in the present.

“That’s when I realized life goes on,” Weaver said.

Local seniors cheer

The Concord Hospital Center for Health Promotion, where Weaver goes twice a week, offers several levels of Tai Chi as well as special classes geared toward those with cancer or multiple sclerosis.

At one recent class, Oriental Healing Arts Association instructor Marcia Wyman – who discovered Tai Chi by taking her mother to classes and says it helped with her own recovery from a stroke – guided Weaver and three other women through a series of movements designed to strengthen their balance and stretch their joints.

Speaking softly, Wyman encouraged her students to remain “rooted in the earth” as they worked through a portion of the day’s choreography: “grasping the sparrow’s tail” (which involved cupping their hands together as if holding a sphere), “embracing the tiger” (turning, bringing their hands together) and “returning it to the mountain” (pushing their hands away toward the horizon).

Weaver helped out for a portion of the class, leading her peers through a set of moves she created that incorporate the use of a small wooden stick.

In between sets, the students – the youngest of whom was 69 – playfully tapped each other with the sticks and bantered back-and-forth.

After class, all in attendance said they’d encourage other seniors to take up the fitness form.

Alma Lane, a 76-year-old Loudon resident who has bonded with Weaver through the Tai Chi classes, also said the exercise helped her cope after her husband died several years ago. Now, she’s improved her balance, and it’s also taught her how to remain calm in the midst of the occasional chaos that comes with her large family.

“I wish more people tried it and stuck to it,” Lane said. “A lot of people expect instant results, and it’s taken a lot of time for me to notice.”

Transportation to class, however, can be a barrier for some seniors. (Weaver, who doesn’t drive, used to take taxis to class. Now, she carpools with Lane.) To reach those who might otherwise be home-bound, Wyman said the Oriental Healing Arts Association is exploring the possibility of producing a short feature for Concord TV that would allow anyone to practice for a few minutes without leaving their living rooms.

Practicing with a low profile

Other seniors weighing whether Tai Chi might be worth their time don’t need to just take Weaver and her friends’ word for it. Across the board – in Harvard Health Publications, in medical journals and elsewhere – the exercise is described as an ideal one for seniors.

A study published earlier this year in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that the exercise can provide relief for seniors with depression and arthritis. According to a summary of the research, “socialization and group interaction play[ed] a significant role in depression outcomes.”

The Mayo Clinic, meanwhile, touts Tai Chi as “a gentle way to fight stress” and advises that it “may be especially suitable if you’re an older adult who otherwise may not exercise.” In addition to Tai Chi’s health benefits and relative ease for senior citizens, the clinic also points out on its website that the exercise doesn’t require expensive equipment and can be done – as Weaver illustrates – practically anywhere.

For now, Weaver explained, she still saves more intensive Tai Chi moves for a classroom environment or her home, lest she cause too much alarm.

“If you do like this in public,” she said, stretching out her arms and bowing her torso, “and you are just by yourself, they will think, ‘Oh, that lady is crazy – what is she doing?’ ”

So to others who might try Tai Chi on-the-go, Weaver advises keeping it simple: Just roll your shoulders forward and backward, try swaying like Nida does in the checkout line or maybe rotate your head from side to side to stretch out your neck.

“That, you can do in public,” she said, laughing. ”Nobody will say you are a weirdo.”

(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or cmcdermott@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)

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