Photograph by Joe Del Tufo
An age-old martial arts practice promises to help seniors improve their posture and coordination, plus boost energy and peace of mind.
After 20-plus years as a military wife and a career as an X-ray/ultrasound tech, Janet DeFeo retired and settled in southern Delaware looking forward to relaxing, exercising and spending time with friends. She joined a group of neighbors who enjoyed going to the local senior center for traditional exercise classes like cardio and weightlifting. When one of her friends suggested checking out a tai chi class, she thought, why not?
“I laughed and said we would kill ourselves, but I was game,” DeFeo recalls. “By the third class, I was hooked.” While considered a martial art form, tai chi— short for t’ai chi ch’uan—is a fusion of martial arts and meditation. The idea is to slow down your mind and body by repeating rhythmic choreography and breath work for 30 to 60 minutes. Tai chi movements are slow, circular and continuous, and it’s often referred to as a moving meditation.
“I noticed as I was aging that my balance wasn’t as good, and in a community of seniors I was worried,” DeFeo says. “As we age, we tend to lean forward when we walk, and our center of gravity is off. This is one of the first things tai chi helps you correct. Fast-forward four years, and I’m now in my 60s, practicing tai chi on a regular basis.”
The martial art is extremely helpful for maintaining strength, flexibility and balance, especially for older individuals, DeFeo explains, and she says the benefits of her practice have become obvious.
“One day I was walking into the senior center with my bag loaded with books, a bottle of water, my tai chi rulers and sword, [and] my foot hit a rock. All of the weight I was carrying propelled me forward and, in that brief second, I thought I was going to land face down. But somehow my tai chi training kicked in and I was able to keep my balance.”
DeFeo also credits her improved energy level and mental health to her consistent tai chi practice. She has even gone on to earn teaching certificates in tai chi for arthritis and fall prevention, and qi gong (another movement practice) for health. She also earned her Level 1 qi gong and beginning tai chi forms from the Silver Lotus Training Institute, based in Rehoboth Beach. She currently teaches tai chi for arthritis and the 24 form of tai chi at the Lewes Activity Center.
“All tai chi, no matter what style, works on balance,” says Susan Hamadock, MA, MSW, founder and director of the Silver Lotus Training Institute, which provides classes at senior centers throughout southern Delaware.
“Tai chi movements are slow, continuous and circular, resembling a choreographed dance, and bring the body and mind into a meditative, calm state. In addition, tai chi builds amazing strength because of how slowly it is done. You’re moving continuously, which stretches your muscles and strengthens your bones.”
In addition, says Hamadock, “One of the most important aspects of tai chi is an underlying principle that being part of a community of friends is essential to good health. This is particularly important for seniors.”
As we age, losing the ability to do things becomes cause for concern. Keeping both our bodies and minds in shape can significantly affect our well-being.
“The older we get, the more aware we become of the things we’re no longer able to do,” adds Jessica Lewis, CPT, CNC, founder of Sculpt Your Life in Claymont, which offers personal training, nutrition instruction and moving meditation. “We want to continue being able to pick up our grandkids, pick up our groceries without straining our back, put things away on a high shelf, stand up without falling, along with all the other activities of daily life that we’ve taken for granted. Tai chi enables seniors to experience a type of movement that they may have lost and improve their balance and well-being simply by practicing moving mindfully.”
Lewis teaches a form called t’ai chi chih, which focuses on 20 simple movements designed to activate, circulate and balance the body’s chi, or essential energy. “In addition to improving balance and overall wellness, t’ai chi chih has been qualified by a number of leading medical authorities as an evidence-based moving mindfulness practice. This is significant because the research on mindfulness repeatedly shows that, over time, the practitioner can easily begin to train their well-being, essentially learning to be well,” she stresses.