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Tai Chi Chuan — gentle, poetic, effective

Seniors restore balance, improve strength through slow, graceful movements

Posted: October 18, 2009 9:57 p.m.
Updated: October 19, 2009 4:55 a.m.

C.C. Chang, foreground right, leads a group of seniors through an hour of gentle, Tai Chi Chuan exercises. With its gentle movements, Tai Chi Chuan is an ideal exercise for seniors, according to Chang.

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They move as if one, a half dozen actors from a silent, slow-motion kung fu movie. Arms unfurl into graceful characters, while legs pivot the torso to the next scene.

"There's a saying that when you're young you do tai chi as a martial art, when you're middle age you do tai chi for health, and when you're elderly, you do it like poetry," said C.C. Chang, tai chi chuan instructor at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center.

Every week for more than a decade, Chang has led seniors in the center's lunch room for an hour of gentle, yet effective tai chi chuan exercise. Classes are available Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays for a fee of $2.

With its gentle movements, tai chi chuan is an ideal exercise for seniors, according to Chang, a senior himself who teaches the class in loose-fitting cotton pants and black canvas martial arts shoes with rubber soles.

"All you have to do is be able to stand and take a step without falling," he said. "It's a practice that primary care physicians will recommend to their senior patients, so that they don't fall and break things. It helps restore balance."

Researchers from a 2001 Tufts University study reported in "Annals of Behavioral Medicine," found that tai chi movements helped seniors improve their physical function.

Ninety-six healthy, but inactive adults ages 65 to 96 were assigned to a tai chi class or a control group. The latter were instructed to maintain their current regimen, while the former met twice a week for 60 minutes.

At the study's end, more than half of those enrolled in the tai chi class indicated improvement over their previous functional limitations, which was consistent with other studies that showed the benefits to seniors including reducing falls.

Tai chi is also a beneficial mental and spiritual practice, as Chang illustrated.

"What we do is called moving meditation. You move slowly, restore your state of mind, and don't stress during any part of it," Chang said.

Ruben Vargas, of Sylmar, began taking Chang's class four months ago. After his wife died, a counselor suggested tai chi chuan as a coping mechanism.

"It helps me, I feel it," Vargas said. "I took tai chi a long time ago, for two sessions I think, but I think I'm in more of a place to appreciate its gentleness now."

Tai chi chuan is believed to have originated from Taoist master Chang San-Feng during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 C.E.).

The most popular account of how the form came into being is that San-Feng copied the soft, coiling motions of a snake and crane he watched in combat.

San-Feng's tai chi chuan originally consisted of 13 postures, corresponding with the eight tenets of the "I Ching" (Book of Changes) and the five elements of earth, fire, wood, metal and water.

In the 1900's, Cheng Man-Ch'ing became a master, considered by many the greatest of all time. Man-Ch'ing shortened the form, which had grown over the centuries, to 37 core postures which remain the most popular to this day.

For more than 22 years, Lucy Baird of Valencia has made tai chi chuan part of her routine and currently assists Chang during classes at the center.

She's so dedicated that once, when her tai chi group got locked out of their class in "ice-cold" weather, Baird led an impromptu outdoor session.

"We got warm real quick," she said.

Baird also cited the socialization during class as a bonus.

"It's a specific group that keeps coming back, not everyone does," she said. "We form friendships here."

Val Thomas of Newhall asked her surgeon if tai chi would be a good practice for her following hip and knee replacements surgeries. The answer was an enthusiastic yes.

Two years later, Thomas has improved her strength and movement to a point that impressed her physical therapists during Thomas' last check up.

"They couldn't believe my balance. They said it was better than most 50-year-olds," Thomas said. "I was pleased with that."

For more information on tai chi chuan classes at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center, visit www.scvsc.org or call (661) 259-9444. The center is located at 22900 Market St. Newhall. Chang teaches tai chi chuan on Tuesdays and Thursdays (classes are also available on Saturdays).

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