Traverse City tai chi instructor Ann Parker tells the many benefits of this gentle workout for the mind and body. Bonus: It’s effective and doable for almost everyone.

Practiced around the world, tai chi is a low impact, relaxing form of exercise that anyone can learn. Tai chi blends mental and spiritual aspects into movement and offers many health benefits—both physical and mental—especially for seniors.

“It’s really an economy of movements,” says Ann Parker, a physical therapist who teaches tai chi weekly at the Yoga Health Education Center at Grand Traverse Commons.

“It’s about awareness, about coming back into a more fully aware sense of your presence in your own body, about breathing and relaxation. Tai chi helps with chronic pain, circulation, balance, and coordination.”

Parker, who studied ballet as a teenager, turned to tai chi after experimenting with Taekwondo. Her education in tai chi began with Jane Hale at Northwestern Michigan College and continued after she moved to Seattle. She continued studying with instructors, notably Master Tao Ping-Siang and Madame Gao-Fu (both from Taiwan), as well as with visiting Master William CC Chen of New York City. Both Mr. Tao and Mr. Chen were top students of Cheng Man-ch’ing, who took tai chi around the globe in the late 1960s through the 1970s.

Learning tai chi, she says, is as easy as showing up to a class. “I have been learning tai chi for over 30 years,” Parker says. “It can be a lifelong endeavor.”

Describe tai chi for those of us unfamiliar with this practice.

Tai chi is a practice of moving meditation. It focuses on relaxation and awareness; calm, steady, and natural breathing; optimal alignment; moving the whole body as one for efficiency and to avoid stress throughout the body. It may be practiced daily, typically morning or evening, alone or in a group. It’s a little like a dance or slow-motion martial arts routine. In my experience, watching a video or reading about it is not the best way to integrate this practice because it is a sensory-motor activity. Attending a class is the best way to learn to do it. Regular practice helps tremendously.

What are the physical and mental health benefits of practicing tai chi?

General well-being is greatly improved with better breathing, blood flow, lymphatic circulation, digestion, postural correction, core-strengthening, clearing mental chatter and anxiety, enhancing quality rest and sleep. Regular practice will allow a person to remain more present in the moment, something we could all use, which enhances the quality of everything we are involved in. Our interactions with others can have more integrity and be more meaningful when we have optimal self-awareness.

Extra benefits as we age?

Improvements in balance and coordination will minimize the risk of falling and also prevent injury, whether from repetitive motions or from chronic tension. When we are young, our body and mind are open to everything, but then we develop patterns that can sometimes become counterproductive. Neuroplasticity allows the mind/body to learn new things at any stage or age. Tai chi is a chance to “be more present” in our bodies. It strengthens our core musculature and lower body for greater stability, in standing positions or especially when shifting our weight to one leg or the other (like when climbing stairs or standing on one foot in the shower). We practice proper body mechanics to reduce stress on the spine and upper body.

Are there any age or physical limitations for seniors to learn or practice tai chi?

Anyone who is able to walk will readily be able to learn and apply these lessons to everyday activities. I teach the Yang Style, Short Form (a 7-10 minute sequence) in my Beginning class and Long Form (15-20 minute sequence which builds on the Short Form) in my Continuing class. But even non-ambulatory people can benefit from modified exercises in seated positions or standing with fingertips touching a chair, countertop or wall; there are many Qigong/Yoga/Balance exercises to try out there. Give it a try!

You also work with people with Parkinson’s. How is your work with them similar with tai chi and how does it help them?

Yes, I am a Physical Therapist at Grand Traverse Pavilions. Our Wellness Center provides Outpatient PT and my training in LSVT BIG is an invaluable tool for those diagnosed (especially recently diagnosed) with Parkinson’s. Look up to learn more. The sooner you can work with a Certified LSVT Therapist, the more equipped you are to slow or minimize the symptoms. So, as with other neurological conditions (head injury, stroke, multiple sclerosis, etc.) there is much to be gained from movement with greater awareness. The similarities are interesting to me: whole-body emphasis of safe movement patterns in a variety of positions, relaxed but upright alignment, easy full breathing for support. In both cases, working one-on-one or in a class, I am asking people to follow my movements and to be present in their own body with full awareness.

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