Without a word and hardly a sound, four women sketch a series of synchronized steps across the lawn in Ashland's Lithia Park.
In the slow motion characteristic to tai chi chuan, they exaggerate the placement of their feet, down to the angle of their ankles. Their arms extend like wings as their eyes follow the trails their hands trace through empty space.
Suddenly, all four bodies spin in a half-circle, and eight fists jab the air straight ahead — the sequence's finale. The group's collective concentration dissolves, but the serenity achieved through practicing tai chi, the women say, will stay with them until next week's class.
"After rushing around all day, it gives me a chance to calm down," says Sharon Overy, 54, of Jacksonville. "Not only do I feel better physically, but I also feel better mentally."
Tai chi practitioners like Overy usually refer to the balance — both literally and figuratively — that the discipline imparts. Educators' and advocates' two-year effort to improve physical balance in local seniors touched off tai chi's sudden and relatively recent popularity around the Rogue Valley.
"It has so many health benefits for older people," says Lillibet Gillespie, one of several instructors paid by an Administration on Aging grant funneled through Oregon State University to offer free, 12-week tai chi courses to adults over age 60.
In its third and final grant year, "Tai Chi for Better Balance and Fall Reduction" comprises eight forms developed by Oregon Research Institute's Dr. Fuzhong Li. Regular practice of Li's regimen, says Sharon Johnson, OSU associate professor of health and human sciences, is clinically proven to reduce the rate at which adults over age 85 suffer a fall by 49 percent.
"That's huge," Johnson says.
Of 541 seniors who participated in last year's 30 tai chi classes through the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 67 percent were over age 70, and 33 percent were older than 80, Johnson says. Many had been diagnosed with chronic health conditions, most commonly arthritis and osteoporosis, Johnson says, adding that 25 percent of tai chi participants had fallen in the previous year and almost half were injured in the fall.
The Extension hasn't conducted any statistical analysis of tai chi's positive effect among grant-supported students, but anecdotes suggest that practitioners improve their balance, Johnson says. Most say they're much less concerned about falling, she adds.
"It's attitude as much as anything."
Patience, Gillespie says, is key if students plan to stick with tai chi and expand their knowledge of the traditional Chinese art. Although it looks simple, people soon discover it's not.
"It's teaching you a lot about yourself," Gillespie says, calling tai chi a non-religious life philosophy.
If tai chi enthusiasts are to reap its full benefits, they should practice it every day, says Gillespie, who encourages her students to take on tai chi "homework." The geriatric-care manager at Ashland's Mountain Meadows retirement community tailors classes to arthritis sufferers, Parkinson's disease patients and even residents who perform the movements from a wheelchair.
"They only do and achieve on their particular level," Gillespie says.
Ultimately, tai chi adherents can lower their blood pressure, alleviate pain, boost concentration and aid memory, instructors say. Baby boomers' overpopulation of the medical system and a trend toward exploring alternatives to staying well has spread tai chi's appeal, says instructor Michael Vasquez.
"Even if you're in good health, it still fortifies your blood circulation, your energy circulation and your oxygen circulation," Vasquez says. "Both yoga and tai chi are ... the premier traditions of preventing illness."
Tai chi and yoga share an emphasis on focusing inner strength, ridding the body of dysfunction and unifying the physical, mental and spiritual realms before practitioners can perfect poses. Just as yoga isn't merely stretching, tai chi, Vasquez says, isn't "slow aerobics."
"Tai chi begins from the inside."
The slow, deliberate movements that have become synonymous with tai chi actually keep muscles under tension longer than faster-paced exercises, says instructor Peter Wolf. It's these "slow-twitch" muscles that promote endurance, he adds. Proficiency in tai chi balances the exertion of maximum strength with minimum strain, Wolf says.
"You're able to do more work with less effort," he says. "It ends up not feeling like a workout anymore."
Yet still very much a martial art, tai chi is an effective form of self-defense, provided practitioners speed it up. Although its name roughly translates as "supreme ultimate force," tai chi's purpose is defending an attack, not initiating one. Unlike some other types of martial art, Wolf says, tai chi employs mostly grappling techniques akin to wrestling, the purpose of which is to put opponents off balance and to maintain your own. Citing an old adage that tai chi is like water, Wolf explains that it redirects force instead of meeting it head-on.
While some tai chi styles are faster and more dynamic, the most popular remains the stereotypically slow Yang style. It's the Yang short form — 24 postures linked together to form a single, continuous movement — that students of Nando Raynolds execute each week in Lithia Park.
A year of continuous study branded the short form into Ann Ramage's muscles and memory. Twelve years later, the 56-year-old Medford resident leads the group, which accommodates individuals' physical limitations and unique interpretations.
"A lot of places, it's like 'no pain, no gain,' " Ramage says. "That's not the tai chi philosophy.
"It's whatever you want to make of it."
For more information on free, 12-week tai chi classes offered through the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, see the Extension’s online course catalog at extension.oregonstate.edu/sorec, e-mail Sharon Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 776-7371, ext. 210.
Classes are funded by the Administration on Aging in collaboration with Rogue Valley Council of Governments’ Senior and Disability Services.
Additional classes are available at local churches, senior centers and assisted-living facilities with participants’ donations.
For more information, see the Web site www.sohealthyoregon.org.