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Healthy Living: The Gentle Power of Tai Chi

Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

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Yield and overcome; Bend and be straight; Empty and be full ... Soft and weak overcome hard and strong. --- Laotzu, Tao Te Ching

In the basement of a rehabbed elementary school, a group of men and women is swimming through invisible Jell-O.

Engaged in a slow-motion tango to the music of koto and flute, their arms move in unison, their palms cradling spheres of unseen energy.

"Now sweep your hands down, just as if you're brushing a peacock's tail," says leader Cate Morrill, and her flock follows suit, bending like grain in a steady breeze.

These students, many approaching retirement age, are practicing tai chi, an ancient discipline with some contemporary applications.

Researchers at Emory University recently demonstrated that training in tai chi can reduce falls in the elderly by up to 40 percent.

Published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Association, the study examined 300 participants ages 70 to 97, all identified as "transitioning to frail," and prone to falls.

In an earlier study of more robust older subjects, the improvement in balance was even more dramatic, reducing falls by nearly a half. Tai chi beat out weight training, balance training, aerobics and stretching.

"When all was said and done, it turned out to be the most potent intervention in the country," said Dr. Steven Wolf, co-director of Emory's Center for Research on Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Neurodegenerative Diseases.

These are heady discoveries for an exotic discipline that is dedicated to the manipulation of an energy force called "chi" that scientists have yet to prove exists.

Considered a "soft" or "internal" art, tai chi is a descendant of the Chinese martial arts. It grew up in the same mountainous Wudang region that gave us the magical martial arts movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

While Westerners are familiar with some uses of the martial arts (beating up on bad guys, for example), adherents also pursue the exercises to promote health and long life. Tai chi has grown to concentrate on these "healing" effects, though the self-defense roots can still be glimpsed within such moves as "wave hands like clouds."

Each movement draws from natural imagery, giving rise to such gestures as "crow cleans its beak," and "parting the wild horse's mane."

There are at least five varieties of tai chi, but in the form familiar to most Americans the gestures are large, slow and flowing as the practitioner drifts from one posture to the next, breathing deeply, in what looks like meditation in motion.

(There is also wide disagreement on the proper English transliteration of the Chinese term. Many teachers use the spelling "t'ai chi," which denotes a hard "t." Some adopt the Pinyin style, "taiji." Webster's, however, insists on "tai chi," no apostrophe.)

"Nobody really knows" how many people in the United States practice tai chi, says Marvin Smalheiser, publisher of T'ai Chi Magazine. Smalheiser's magazine has 50,000 subscribers, but he suspects there are "hundreds of thousands" who do at least some tai chi every year.

Susan Ross, 61, a retired Delta information technologist, says she began practicing tai chi (and its even slower relative, qi gong) four years ago when classes were offered at her North Atlanta apartment. She discovered that she was sleeping better, her blood pressure went down, and she was cutting back on the many medications she took for autoimmune problems.

Now she helps stage seminars featuring tai chi master Yun Xiang Tseng, a Taoist priest from the Wudang area who relocated to Long Island, N.Y., in 1992.

Master Chen, as he is addressed by his students, was in Atlanta over the weekend and led several classes. "It's a mission," he said before a Saturday class at the Atlanta School of Massage. "It should be shared equally with the world."

The gentle moves and unhurried pace are ideal for those with creaky knees and stiff joints. Seniors and those who work with the elderly are catching on to tai chi's promise. When Wolf first studied tai chi, in the early 1990s, "no one knew what it was." Now many retirement homes and elder centers have their own teachers.

Residents at Wesley Woods Towers have had the opportunity to take classes for 12 years. The Rev. Roy Reese, 98, a retired Methodist minister, is an enthusiastic participant.

"I really attribute some of my longer life to that," said Reese, who rehearses about 15 minutes every day. He practices most of the moves from a sitting position. But his wife, Bettye Porter Reese, says the discipline has improved his equilibrium and control.

Kalila King, who teaches senior citizens in Cobb and Cherokee counties, says they leave her classes standing straighter and pushing their walkers, instead of leaning over them.

Beyond the physical benefits, the exercises also can help provide a mental and psychological boost.

Tracy Adams, the fitness coordinator at Clairmont Oaks retirement community in Decatur, said the confidence gained by those who take classes can be invaluable.

"I had a resident who took part in the study at Emory, and her turnaround was incredible," says Adams. "Her outlook has improved, she looks great, she feels great. It's made a difference in her life, not just physically, but psychologically. When people feel confident in their ability to walk down the street, it just makes life better."

The elderly have good reason to be afraid of falling. Among those over age 80 who fall and sustain hip fractures, half will be dead within a year, says Wolf. Falls are the seventh leading cause of death for all adults over 65.

Those with Parkinson's disease are particularly at risk for falling as their motor control declines.

Wolf and Dr. Jorge L. Juncos are at the end of a three-year study of the effect of tai chi, qi gong and aerobic training on Parkinson's patients.

In a "Western vs. Eastern" test, Juncos, associate professor of neurology at Emory, hopes to determine whether the mental training of tai chi and qi gong will be equivalent to the "huffing and puffing" of a more physical regimen.

"It would be fascinating," says Juncos, "if the mind body component overcomes the caloric expenditure."

Falling was once a problem for Jennie Caine, 56, not because of anything other than clumsiness, she says. The dental office manager has tumbled everywhere from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to her own living room.

Now she and her husband, Bob, have taken about six weeks of classes with Cate Morrill, and Jennie Caine says she feels a difference. "I can actually balance, where I can stand on one foot."

Morrill, 48, has worked with Wolf and Juncos in their studies of tai chi, Parkinson's and the elderly. Her patient repetitions and soothing voice proved perfect for the task, says Juncos, and the question for studies elsewhere is, "Can we do this without Cate?"

Morrill likes incorporating tai chi moves as a component of everyday life. Hence, she suggests interpreting "wind blows the lotus leaves" this way: "You pick up the pot from the sink, you turn and put it on the stove."

Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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