The practice of tai chi is thousands of years old, having evolved from a martial art into medicinal and meditative uses.
Today it offers gentle exercise that both relaxes and strengthens.
Rim Country residents have many opportunities to learn and practice tai chi, including classes at the Payson Senior Circle (free to members). Gila Community College also offers classes, free to seniors, with the summer classes running from 10 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. starting May 27. Alternatively, you can attend a Friday night class at 5 p.m. at the community room of Canal Street Apartments until April, followed by a Friday class at Green Valley Park, near the bandstand. The Saturday morning program is at 9 a.m. at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church parish hall at the corner of Sherwood and Easy streets.
Tom Quirk leads the sessions at the Senior Circle and the Friday and Saturday sessions. He is currently recovering from back surgery, so he is playing student until he regains his strength and range of motion.
Speaking at the March 19 Lunch & Learn program at the Senior Circle, Quirk shared some of the history of tai chi, talked about some of its variation and even had the lunch guests do a series of moves in their seats.
Some versions of tai chi can be practiced while seated, making it helpful to those with arthritis and mobility issues.
The different “original” versions of tai chi are known as families, Quirk said. The moves are called “forms.”
“Most tai chi history looks at the five major family styles that have evolved,” he said. The five families are: Chen, which is the oldest and most martial; Yang, the most widely practiced; Wu, very flowing with arms; Hao, very similar to Wu; and Sun, the newest style and most upright.
“It requires no special clothes or shoes,” Quirk said.
He said tai chi is practiced with one of three intentions: as a martial art for self defense; for health as a gentle, flowing exercise to loosen joints, muscles, regain strength and maintain balance; and for meditation and relaxation.
Quirk said one of the best reference books about tai chi is “The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi.” It outlines the “eight active ingredients in tai chi” which he shared at the Lunch & Learn.
Awareness — slow deliberate movements and breathing — if you are focusing on moving slowly and correctly and breathing properly your mind is too occupied to be worrying about other things; you get better balance and work out muscles.
Intention — imagery and visualization. Quirk said these aspects make it especially beneficial to those who must practice it while seated. He said the brain does not know the difference between reality and a dream. So even if you are not actually doing the steps, with imagery and visualization your brain believes you are and the body benefits.
Structural integration — how the movement works from beginning to end and then the transition to the next movement (another way to stay focused and in the moment).
Active relaxation — meditation in motion (the focus required frees the mind and allows it to relax).
Strengthening and flexibility — increasing muscle strength and stretching of muscle, tendons and ligaments and relaxing each of the joints.
Natural freer breathing — deep, long breaths from the diaphragm.
Social support — rich interactions between student and teacher and other students in the class leading to less isolation.
Embodied spirituality — integration of body, mind and spirit into the every day. To find balance in all things, to be calm during stressful times, to be helpful to others.
Qigong is somewhat of an offshoot of tai chi. It is a health-based series of exercises designed to improve the health of specific organs or the entire body.
The practice of tai chi is thousands of years old, but it continues to evolve with modifications to benefit more and more health conditions. Quirk said studies around the world have documented the benefits of this ancient practice.
New Zealand and Australia studies use tai chi for fall prevention. The University of Oregon also has ongoing community programs specifically aiming tai chi at fall prevention. Other studies have looked at the impact of the practice on Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, back pain, osteoporosis and shingles.
Quirk said the study of tai chi and Parkinson’s shows it helps with the tremors associated with the disease. The weight-bearing aspects of the practice have an impact on diabetes, osteoporosis and arthritis. There are 32 forms in the tai chi modified to help with diabetes and 16 for osteoporosis, while the modified practice for arthritis has 50 forms.