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Staying fit with tai chi November 7, 2007

Posted by Dreamhealer in exercise.
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MICHELLE NOLAN
FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALD
Tai chi has given local senior citizens a leg to stand on while rejuvenating their health.

Watching the energetic likes of 85-year-old Dorothy Spencer and other seniors balance themselves on one leg as part of an ancient Chinese discipline would inspire anyone to seek a better fitness level.

Spencer and two other local grandmothers, Carolyn Hutchins and Susan Nunnally, along with 69-year-old former college football player Tai Mostovoy of Lynden are among the most enthusiastic tai chi participants at Bellingham’s Chinese Martial Arts Academy.

The academy’s owner, Chris Strelau, offers five classes a week for seniors in the Yang style of tai chi chuan, an ancient Chinese martial art that means “grand ultimate fist.”

No, these seniors aren’t imitating Bruce Lee. They’re just taking advantage of an Asian way to stay fit.

“Tai chi emphasizes slow, meditative movements that work on flexibility and balance,” said Strelau, a member of the USA Martial Arts Hall of Fame. “Tai chi is actually a life force and a healing art. The Yang style is the most practical for its health benefits. The emphasis for seniors is not on the martial, but on balance and understanding breath control and posture.

“There’s an emphasis on opening up the joints and all the medians to help with circulation and other aspects of general health,” he said. “Medians are important acupressure points, located at joints.”

Strelau says one of the exercises stresses how important it is to be able to stand on one leg and not fall.

“Even good athletes, when they start out on the basic tai chi walk, find they can’t immediately do it,” he said. “But this is a style of tai chi that is very soft and easy on the joints.”

Mostovoy, who moved to Lynden two years ago from Hawaii, is especially grateful to have discovered tai chi.

“I had a debilitating episode with cancer,” he said. “I was on medication that was taking my strength. I’d been rude to my body most of my life, playing football and wrestling and then weight lifting. I had to find something a bit more subdued, yet that would allow me to have an exercise that would bring back my strength and balance. I’ve found that in tai chi. I call it ‘yoga in motion.’ ”

Hutchins, 65, began tai chi lessons five years ago “because, basically, my right side was falling apart.”

She had seen tai chi performed in Japan, so she felt it had healing qualities.

“I was having a lot of issues with my neck, arm, back pain, leg and hip and one foot,” said Hutchins, who suffers from arthritis in her spine. “I needed something, and tai chi has been very good. It’s keeping me out of pain.

In fact, after she was rearended in an auto accident in June, Hutchins discovered anew how much she needed tai chi.

“I kept coming in (for Strelau’s instruction) even though I was in pain after the accident,” she said. “That’s when I needed tai chi the most.”

Strelau says Hutchins has become so enthusiastic, she brings her grandchildren in to the academy.

Spencer recalled beginning her tai chi experience in the same class Hutchins did. Spencer had had one hip replacement several years earlier, and she wound up having another in 2004.

“I had heard of tai chi,” she said, “but I had no real knowledge what it was. But I wanted to stay active and work on my balance and health. A big reason I started was the challenge of learning something new. tai chi also has improved my memory and concentration. It has lowered my blood pressure and lowered my anxiety levels.”

Strelau says Spencer, at 85, especially inspires her classmates.

“Dorothy trains in our regular classes, too,” he said. “She has become much more patient. It’s been wonderful to see her improve.”

Nunnally, 63, says she had been interested in alternative healing methods for a long time and also saw tai chi in Hawaii.

“I’ve avoided athletics all my life very religiously. I was always more into arts and crafts. Gardening was pretty much the extent of my exercise. Not that I was always lying on the coach eating bon bons,” she said with a laugh.

Nunnally was surprised with how much energy she gained.

“You can just feel the energy flow and tai chi is not that strenuous,” she said. “I don’t ever feel I’ll injure myself, or anything like that. I can tell I’m much stronger in my legs and healthier, both mentally and physically. I want to continue this forever.”

Hutchison and Spencer said there has been a bonus — they’ve made so many new friends.

“And our tai chi is not competitive, except for your own improvement,” Nunnally said. “You can also do it alone and it doesn’t require a lot of equipment.”

Nor, thank heavens, are bon bons necessary.

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