Cowed by calls to “feel the burn” and “no pain, no gain” accompanied by blaring, thumping music and sweat flying in traditional workout classes? Relax. There is another option and you can find it in Vinton— slow motion exercise with Judy Gruber’s soothing voice saying, “Do not push; this is Tai Chi,” or “We’re not here to hurt ourselves; if it hurts, back off; this is Tai Chi,” or “if you’re doing it fast, you’re doing it wrong.” More of a “Peaceful, easy feeling” than a manic “Footloose.”
The Charles R. Hill Senior Center in Vinton offers free Tai Chi classes now on two days each week— and for all ages, not just for seniors.
Instructor Steve Garay has been teaching Tai Chi at 4 p.m. on Thursdays for several years, accepting all skill levels. Three of his students, Judy Gruber, Mike Ferguson, and Chris Saeyer, have spun-off a class of their own for beginners on Tuesday mornings at 9:15 (lasting until 10 a.m.). They emphasize movements for arthritis and fall prevention.
Ferguson, a retired lawyer says he spent about a year and a half learning the Tai Chi form with Garay, who had done a Tai Chi demonstration for the Mount Pleasant Lions Club, where Ferguson is a member.
Ferguson was suffering from arthritis; he knew he needed to do something about his condition and concluded “Tai Chi might be for me.” He did some research on the ancient art, “showed up for class, liked it, and kept coming back.”
He then elected to attend an intense two-day seminar to become a certified Master Tai Chi instructor himself last October. Certification is achieved by both demonstrating the form perfectly to instruct others and passing a written test.
Ferguson says that the there are many different forms of Tai Chi, but the one used in the Tuesday beginner-level class is the Soong style taught by Dr. Paul Lam, and focuses on Tai Chi for Health. Dr. Lam is said to have traveled over a million miles teaching Tai Chi programs to over 8 million people around the world.
While Ferguson is a co-instructor for the beginner class, he continues with Garay’s class as well.
Gruber says that she was getting ready to retire after 25 years as a florist, watching TV, and saw a program with folks doing Tai Chi exercises in a park.
“I don’t know what that is, but I want to learn it,” she said.
She happened on the Tai Chi classes with Garay and “was hooked immediately.” She says she knew instantly that she was “doing something good for myself; I immediately felt better, probably because of all the oxygen and deep breathing” that are a big part of Tai Chi. She has now been taking Tai Chi for five or six years and has been an instructor for about two years.
The new instructors said it was apparent as the Thursday class continued to grow that there were more and more different skill levels and some of those attending needed extra attention. That led to the new Tai Chi class being formed.
Ferguson notes that Tai Chi originated in China as a martial art, but that “the form we do is a mild exercise, not meant to be martial arts, but meant to be exercise with a slow circular movement system for the whole body– repetitive and nuanced.”
Nowadays Tai Chi is practiced more for its health benefits than for its martial aspects. It has been referred to as “meditation in motion.” In China, 10 million people practice some type of Tai Chi daily, making it one of the most popular forms of exercise in the world.
Penny Beyer, Senior Citizens Coordinator at the Senior Center, participates in the Tai Chi class and says that she enjoys the classes because the instructors teach the basics in a slow-moving way, with patience, taking time to explain why they are doing each one.
Gruber and Ferguson say that Tai Chi is good for, and recommended for, all ages.
“At no point do you outgrow it,” says Ferguson. “You can do Tai Chi even if you are confined to a wheelchair, even if you are not mobile.”
Gruber says that at one time there was a “Seated Tai Chi” class offered at the Senior Center.
The beginner class got under way with gentle warm-up movements for the entire body for the 20 or so students attending on March 6. They started with neck and arm stretches, then moved the focus to the spine. Ferguson and Gruber emphasized the balanced yin and the yang of Tai Chi; “whatever you do on one side of the body, you do on the other.”
Breathing was incorporated as an integral part of the exercises throughout.
Ferguson quipped that any popping and cracking sounds were probably coming from him due to his arthritis.
Warm-ups were followed by the Tai Chi form itself, which flowed continuously for the remainder of the class, with a quick cool down at the end.
Many movements promoted balance– the key to fall prevention. Students were encouraged to use chairs or the wall to stay balanced when necessary.
“Do what your body allows, not what your neighbor is doing,” instructed Gruber.” Listen to your own knees.”
Barbara Foutz says that she has been doing Tai Chi for about a year and got started because of her arthritis. She also attends both the Tuesday and Thursday classes.
Dean Shell has been taking Tai Chi for “a long time” after hip and knee replacements, starting out with Garay at his Thursday classes, but now coming twice a week.
One gentleman started out in Tai Chi when he learned about the classes from his friend Ferguson. Another came early one day for the line dancing class that meets after Tai Chi and became interested enough to join the class.
Tai Chi is inexpensive. It requires no special clothing, no special equipment, and can be done indoors or out, either alone or in a group. Tai Chi is an exercise you can do unobtrusively, “standing in line at the grocery store or in the kitchen cooking hot dogs.”
Because of the low stress level of the exercises, it is a particularly attractive form of exercise for seniors. A study conducted by the National Institute on Aging found that Tai Chi exercises “cut the fear of falling and risk of falls among older people. The exercises may improve sensitivity to nerve signals in ankles and knees, which might help prevent falls.”
Studies among a group with osteoarthritis demonstrated less joint pain and stiffness than before they began a Tai Chi program. Another study showed Tai Chi participants had improved sleep quality and length of sleep time. The Tai Chi Arthritis Form class has been endorsed by the Arthritis Foundation of America.
The Charles R. Hill Senior Center is located at 820 Washington Avenue on the Vinton War Memorial campus. For more information, call Penny Beyer at 983-0643 or Mary Beth Layman with Special Programs at 983-0613.