After dancing with her husband, Dean, for 40 years, Alice Crook turned to tai chi when he became ill. The two first met at a Big Band Dance hall in the 1950’s, introduced by friends. It was music that brought them together, and music that consoled her when Dean lost his battle with cancer in 2004. This time it was the soothing, meditative music that often accompanies the practice of Tai Chi, rather than the toe tapping sounds of Tommy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong or the Glenn Miller Orchestra. The tradition of dance continues. “Our daughters dance, one is a Zumba instructor, and our grandchildren dance. I guess we’re a dancing family.”
Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese form of exercise or meditation that is graceful, slow moving and intentional with a deep focus, gentle stretching, and concentration on the breath. It requires no equipment and this spiritual practice has been celebrated for its many health benefits. Its attributes are many, not the least of which are greater balance and flexibility, increased stamina, and decreased levels of stress and anxiety. There has been evidence that tai chi helps improve sleep, improves cholesterol levels and lowers high blood pressure among other things, as reported in Harvard Women’s Health Watch. (http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Womens_Health_Watch/2009/May/The-health-benefits-of-tai-chi)
So it might come as no surprise that Alice decided to find a tai chi class after her husband became ill. She has been taking weekly classes at the Westerly, Rhode Island Senior Center for more than 12 years with instructor Gary Donovan.
“I was already familiar with tai chi and I knew it was something I could look forward to,” said Alice. “I found it calming and comfortable. It really helped me a lot. For the first year after Dean died I looked forward to it as a respite. It briefly put my grief on hold for a bit. The music is very soothing to me. The gentle movement, the listening…is like flowing with the universe. It made me feel like one with the universe. I liked that it seemed spiritual in some way.”
She found it helpful when she was dealing the stresses and uncontrollable nature of her husband’s illness. And the controlled movement of tai chi was something she could control. After he passed away, that movement to music continued to nurture her. She tried other tai chi classes over the years that didn’t play music, but it was always in Gary’s class where she felt most at home.
“After an hour I feel rejuvenated and relaxed, relaxed as well at energized.” And Alice isn’t the only one. Tai chi classes are popular, often available through community centers, complementary healing programs, yoga centers and especially senior centers. They tend to be very affordable when offered through community services. The Westerly Senior Center offers the class twice a week and participants must be a member ($30/year), and then each class is $1.50. Not bad for all that health and well-being.
Gary has been practicing tai chi for 22 years. A second back injury with debilitating pain and anguish prompted him to seek alternative healing therapies. He came across a flyer for Eagles Quest Tai Chi and began his first tai chi practice with David Chandler, hoping to avoid surgery. “Chi” is energy or life force and through this practice he not only healed his back but found that it helped with other challenges as well. He took classes for eight years.
“There are ways to enhance the quality of life and the length of our lives,” said Gary. “Deep breathing is a core practice, of the Eastern understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Breath is life.”
When he felt ready for a change from his work in a hectic environment, his wife Jan suggested he become a tai chi instructor because he loved the practice so much.
“I took her advice. She is a source of inspiration for me.”
Gary pursued further training and certification at Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, New York. He has pursued both Western and traditional Eastern certifications. At 64 years old in what he calls semi-retirement, he continues teaching 11 classes, mostly at senior centers around southeastern Connecticut. Although open to men and women, the classes are predominantly attended by women. Gary speculates why.
“More women take time to care for themselves, take time to nourish themselves. Most men…they think they are fine and have everything together. Women are the nourishers in the family while men are the protectors. When women no longer have the responsibility of family and home, they want to fulfill their own aspirations. They begin to think about nourishing themselves, actualizing their potential, becoming healthier. But we are all in fact vulnerable to the difficulties of life itself…aging, illness, and accidents.”
There is no doubt tai chi can benefit men and women and the benefits are many. In addition to promoting health, the tai chi practice in a group setting has a socialization aspect. Groups come together, often over time and get to know each other and sometimes establish a bond. There is a sense of connecting with others in a spiritual way. In a day that might feel empty there is reason to be, and a purpose. Class begins with warm up exercises for a practice that requires no previous skill set. Instrumental music sets the tone and Gary’s deep inviting voice slows the busyness of the day, as he invites the group into one movement after another, gentle stretching, opening the energy pathways within, becoming conscious of each breath. He refers to the breathing as an internal massage. “Imagine lungs expanding.” This meditative practice can be done indoors or out and many people practice at home.
“Every day is a treasure. Every breath is a gift,” said Gary. “It is important to choose wisely how we spend that time. Yesterday is to learn from, but today is the one that is important. Tai chi helps me to remember to be aware of myself, and to make changes that will make me feel better. It gives me more control of being able to relax in stressful situations. We can control things within us but maybe not in the world.”