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Tai Chi maintaining the balance

As he neared his 70s, Central Point resident Lew Brush noticed the near slips and loss of balance that came with getting older.

An active deer hunter and grandparent, Brush says he and his wife, Darlene, had no intentions of spending any less time doing the things they enjoyed most.

The couple committed themselves to exercising, eating right and checking into the hubbub going on about seniors who practiced the ancient art of tai chi.

"As you get older, you start having some difficulties with certain things like staying upright, stability, being able to move," he says.

"I still deer hunt and I still moose hunt and staying upright is really important."

An ancient Chinese discipline, tai chi chu'an (pronounced "tie jee") integrates the mind, body and spirit. Practitioners focus on meditation and deep breathing as they move through a series of forms that resemble slow-moving ballet.

Proponents of tai chi say regular practice is a preventive medicine of sorts, especially for seniors, warding off signs of aging by improving circulation, strength and flexibility.

While tai chi is more common in other parts of the world, it has gradually gained a following in the United States in recent years, especially with older Americans.

Brush and his wife were just two of more than 250 seniors in the Rogue Valley to take advantage of a grant from the Administration on Aging that funded 12 weeks of tai chi sessions for seniors last year.

Facilitated through the Oregon State University Extension and Rogue Valley Council of Governments, the program focused on a form of tai chi developed by the Oregon Research Institute and Dr. Fuzhong Li shown to significantly reduce the potential for falls and fractures in older adults.

Longtime Tai Chi instructor Sean Kelly, of Ashland, says the benefits of Tai Chi are life-changing. One class he taught in Medford was prompted when a local senior fell in the supermarket after losing her balance. Members of a church group she belonged to got together and initiated a class under the grant program.

"They started 12 weeks ago and very few of them to begin with could stay on their feet the whole time," Kelly says.

"Two or three months later, none of them need supports. It's great to see how strong they've gotten."

Howard and Shirley Garthwait of Central Point say Tai Chi has helped them become steadier on their feet and feel better overall.

"It was a good thing for us to do because we're getting old and we thought our balance was great," Howard Garthwait says.

"Sometimes, when you haven't done something in a long time and you think you're right on target, you find out you're not."

He adds, "As you get older you're more likely to fall. Since we started, it seems like getting out of the tub or shower we aren't having anymore 'slipsies' or close calls."

Rogue Valley Tai Chi instructor Michael Vasquez says Tai Chi is great for seniors experiencing decreased mobility, but he says it should be considered as a valid preventive therapy regardless of age.

"All throughout our day, we're either sitting, standing, turning, shifting or moving in some way, shape or form," he says, advising anyone interested in Tai Chi to start with a beginners' class or a facility offering various levels.

"Tai Chi teaches us to connect to our internal health and take it with us and become aware of all the things we're doing. So many of us in society get so busy we forget about ourselves."

Brush says he has noticed improvement when he's playing with his grandkids and when he's hunting. "It's kind of like learning to walk all over again," he says.

"Basically I just think it's a long-term look at life. I've got friends that are like me, diabetic, not eating right, exercising, not doing any of the things they're supposed to do," he says.

"Tai Chi is an important part of having good health. You have to stay active, eat right and exercise "¦ and take Tai Chi."

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at buffypollock@juno.com.

Tai Chi instructor Sean Kelly, left, leads Carl Finch, 71, of Medford, and a group of seniors in a class in Medford. Jim Craven 1/10/2008 - Jim Craven