PALM HARBOR — One recent afternoon in the Palm Harbor Community Center, 18 men and women positioned themselves in four lines facing their instructor, Robin Reardon. They were about to begin the opening moves of tai chi, a gentle form of exercise that dates back to ancient China.
"Tai chi is a moving meditation," said Reardon. "It's internal and the basic premise is to improve health."
This ancient exercise form appears especially well-suited to older people. The movements are slow, gentle and graceful. In this class students testified to achieving greater strength and flexibility since taking tai chi.
Reardon, 65, turned to tai chi in the mid '90s to address numerous health problems. Arthritis had left his fingers folded over and his hands without strength.
"I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in my 30s," he said. "I watched my father slowly become crippled and was determined not to go that way."
He also suffered from lingering amoebic dysentery, contracted while serving in the Army in Laos during the Vietnam War. Reardon had tried conventional medicine with no success, followed by acupuncture, which he said helped a little. The acupuncturist urged him to try tai chi. Intent on improving his well-being, he began lessons right away.
"The first two years I took tai chi were very intense," he said. "I put up a ballet bar and mirrors and really went at it."
Now he teaches three advanced classes a week and does a complete set, consisting of 108 steps, at home each morning. Reardon said his hands have improved and he is no longer troubled with residual ailments from his war years.
Roger Boese, 69, began learning tai chi in 2005. He suffered from various ailments, including Addison's disease, a rare auto-immune disease affecting the adrenal glands and causing extreme fatigue along with a host of other symptoms.
He also had hip problems.
"I had just had a total hip replacement," he said. "I was looking for something to help me regain strength and balance."
Boese said when he started he was really stiff, but he began taking every class he could just to learn the steps. His efforts have paid off: He feels better and his flexibility has improved.
"My hip works with certain restrictions," he said, "but I can still do all of the moves."
Boese, who recently got certified to teach beginning classes, said tai chi has helped him do what he needs to do to live reasonably.
"At this point I'll do tai chi for the rest of my life," he said.
Reardon said he has observed much improvement in his students over the years.
"They become calmer and healthier and don't get as many colds," he said. "Some people with scoliosis actually have grown because of tai chi."
Participants run the gamut in age, but most are seniors. All attribute their improved health at least in part to this ancient art.
"I have a better sense of balance now," said Audrey Lederman, 82, who does some of the moves each day at home in between classes. "I also have more pep and energy than people much younger than I."
Lederman, who began tai chi classes a dozen years ago, said she doesn't get sick very often either.
In 2003 Ida Swartz, 84, was suffering from continual back problems and thought this gentle form of exercise might fit her needs.
"Now I can lift things off the floor without hurting my back," said Swartz, who attends three classes a week.
LaVerne Chenault, also in her 80s, suffered a stroke five years ago. Several friends urged her to try tai chi.
"It's done everything for me," she said. "I'm never ill."
The form of tai chi practiced at the Palm Harbor center, as well as in five other Pinellas locations, is Taoist tai chi, which originated in China in the 13th century. At that time, Taoist monk and teacher Chang San-Feng created the set of 108 slow movements rooted in the martial arts. The moves, including stretching, bending and twisting, were designed to bring practitioners back to good health.
San-Feng's program was later implemented in the West by another Taoist monk, Moy Lin-Shin, who founded the first Taoist Tai Chi Society in the early '70s while living in Canada. The society, a nonprofit organization whose teachers are volunteers, now has chapters in some 25 countries.
Chenault said tai chi is the only exercise she does.
"It fills my entire life," she said. "I move my body, don't have arthritis, and I've made good friends as well."
Elaine Markowitz is a freelance writer living in Palm Harbor. E-mail her at email@example.com.