1. Archive

All the right moves

I never did well in art in school, and didn't really like it _ doing it, that is.

But in retirement I've found an art that I do like, even though I may not do well in it.

It's not what you might think. No drawing or sketching or painting is involved. This is the art of tai chi.

Tai chi is something I first became aware of several years ago when we were visiting our daughter in Wisconsin. A friend of hers had stopped by en route to a tai chi class and gave us a demonstration of sorts.

I immediately dismissed it from my mind, although the subject came up occasionally in our house for one reason or another. Still, I had no interest. Then, at an Elderhostel last January, an instructor (teaching an entirely different subject) happened to mention that he used tai chi as a tool in treating patients with Parkinson's disease. My wife's brother has Parkinson's, and our interest was sparked.

We spoke to the instructor after the class and learned more about his use of it _ he said that by using tai chi he actually had taught six Parkinson's patients to juggle _ and we forwarded this information to my wife's brother. Then we decided to explore the subject a little more deeply ourselves.

There is a Tai Chi center at 6410 Fourth St. N in St. Petersburg. (There are others in Clearwater, at 1223 Cleveland St., and Brandon, at the Rotary Camp.) The St. Petersburg center is in our general area, so we stopped by to check it out. We learned that new classes begin the first week of every month and we were welcome to visit.

On the first Monday of February, we were there. So, much to my surprise, were between 30 and 40 other people, ranging in age from 8 to 88. We listened to a lecture on tai chi, then watched a demonstration _ and then signed up.

At first, it seemed hopeless. There are 108 moves, all to be remembered and performed continuously in slow, graceful movements. We began by attending a beginners' class two evenings a week. After a month, we began attending a daytime seniors' class, also for beginners, also twice a week.

At some point along the way, we began to realize that we seemed to be the laggards in the evening class. Because the instructors, all of whom are volunteers, stress that students should progress at their own natural rate, we dropped out of our first class and started over in another evening class for beginners.

It was at this stage that I was ready to throw in the towel, as many of those who had shown up for that first February session had done long ago. But not my wife; she was determined to stay with it.

Now, five months after that first session, we have gone completely through two 26-session courses. To say we know all 108 moves would be an exaggeration. To say we can do them would be closer to the truth. To say we like it and have benefited from it would be undisputable.

We have reached the place now where we can join a continuing class, another class in progress, or show up for general practice. Tai chi students are welcome at any of the many classes scheduled every day of the week. Once the modest fee is paid, a student can attend as many sessions each week as he or she can find time for.

And what are the benefits?

Better circulation, more elastic muscles, tendons and ligaments, which in turn means greater flexibility, along with a new ability to relax and the opportunity to meet interesting people.

A chiropractor who taught the seniors class we attended (with an enrollment of only three!) told us that he constantly recommends tai chi to his patients. "They say they don't have time," he said, "but if they would just take the time, I'd have a lot fewer patients."

This is something that seniors certainly should consider. Once you've learned to grasp the bird's tail, strum the pei pa, strike tiger and part the wild horse's mane, along with the 104 other moves, you'll not only have a feeling of accomplishment _ you'll have a feeling of well-being.

You can write to Jay Horning c/o Seniority, the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.