Tai Chi a Hit with Young and Old
By ANGELA PUCKER
It may just be because tai chi looks so relaxing that senior citizens, baby boomers and thirty somethings alike are signing up for workouts that favor a slow dance with the wind.
What participants soon learn is that tai chi is a workout for the mind and the body.
Instructor Freddie Gonzalez said tai chi “gives you a sense of serenity. It’s a standing meditation.”
But, after an hour long class with about 20 students in Cherry Hill, his slightly glistening face couldn’t hide the fact that he’d worked up a sweat.
“You get energy during the workout,” said one of his students, Jane Cornish, a Glassboro resident who enrolled in tai chi through Kennedy Health System’s Elder Med Office. “You’re getting the energy by the motion and the stances.”
The 64-year-old said she used to jog three miles every other day, sprint up and down bleachers, sweat in aerobics class and lift weights. But, from her first tai chi class, Cornish said she was sorry she had waited so long to enroll.
Tai chi chuan, the full name for tai chi, means “grand ultimate fist.” It packs a wallop to muscles but you can’t tell to look at it. The movements are soft, flowing and graceful.
Tai chi originated in China as a form of self-defense.If you’re thinking of kung fu type movements with punishing kicks and chops, think again. In tai chi, nothing is fast. and fierce unless you want it to be.
The practice is a series of no impact movements that increase flexibility and muscle tone, said Keith Mazza, the owner of Traditional Wing Chun Kung Fu Academy, which has two location in Cherry Hill. The Springdale Plaza location is the site of Kennedy’s ElderMed class.
Practitioners claim tai chi also lowers blood pressure, increases visual acuity, improves balance and coordination and decreases muscle atrophy, particularly for the elderly.
According to Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, tai chi may be the best exercise for people older than 60 because the slow, gentle movements are easy on joints and provide a host of health benefits. In one study, senior women increased the amount they could lift by 18 pounds after a year of tai chi class. Senior men could lift 27 pounds more than they could when they started the class.
In China and Taiwan, an estimated 30 million people rise early to practice tai chi in parks. It is part of the culture Mazza said.
The movements are simple to learn said Mazza who tries to demystify the martial art for students who are intimidated by the moves.
Mazza, who started taking tai chi and other martial arts classes when he was a 4-year-old in New York’s Chinatown, said when he first started teaching tai chi in South Jersey, people told him he was teaching it wrong. What many don’t realize, he said, is that tai chi is for selfdefense, for exercise and for meditation. He incorporates all three. Most people are accustomed to the meditative aspects only.
“A lot of people come because they are so stressed out at the office,” he said. “They come to the class to reduce the “stress.”
No one is quite sure how many people practice tai chi the United States. Man.Smalheiser, editor and publisher of TAI CHI Magazine. said
Mazza said his classes range from people in their 30s to senior citizens. His oldest student is 104. Classes are becoming so popular he is considering moving from the Sprlngdale location to a larger space.
Practice/Participants tout benefits of tai chi classes.
Some people don’t want to take the time to learn every move. There are different forms of tai chi, some with many more moves to remember than others.
In South Jersey, the variety of tai chi classes runs the gamut. There are classes in nursing homes and schools as well as martial arts studios.
Rheumatologist Mark Fisher has incorporated tai chi into his practice since moving into The Wellness Center at Haddon in August in Haddon Heights. It appears to help his patients’ ability to stretch and improves their range of motion, he said,
“All of these things work together to help the patients with their pain management,” Fisher said.
Tai chi is an elective for massage therapy students at Lourdes Institute of Holistic Studies in Collingswood added Erika Mac Williams.
Students said the classes help them move more smoothly and continuously when working on massage clients..
“They lean a lot about their postures and their movements and how to move their bodies in a healthy way so they don’t over strain themselves,” Mac Williams added.
The Burlington County YMCA offers tai chi classes for people with multiple sclerosis as well as for others. The classes help MS sufferers improve muscle strength, balance coordination and concentration.
Tai chi also attracts many seniors. The first time Mazza’s martial| arts studio hosted Elder Med participants four years ago, 70 people signed up for one class.
Cornish, who joined the Elder Med program with her husband, Bill, said she signed up for the class, in part, to find more balance in her life through Oriental medicine and exercise.
“This fits the bill,” added her classmate, Marie Lucca, a social worker from Westville. “I think it’s what I’ve been looking for because I need to do exercise but I don’t want to do high-impact exercise.”
Taking a break at the end of an hour long class, Lucca added, “This is probably a little better because it builds stamina.”