Above: Tara Vroman demonstrates the movements for Kitty Alvarez, left, and Kay Dodd, right, at the North Cobb Senior Center; photos by Julie Bloemeke

Before starting her first tai chi class, Jeannette Dempsey made a confession. “I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce it.”

The 89-year-old Dempsey, like many other seniors drawn to tai chi, sought out the practice because she heard that it might help with arthritis and balance, and she was looking for ways to stay active after a recent bout with heart problems.

Shane Orfas, right, demonstates a stretch for Marti Billistrand, left.

Tai chi, pronounced “tie chee,” is an ancient Chinese martial arts practice known for enhancing the “chi,” or life energy, and promoting a sense of peace and calm through connecting the mind and body. Characterized by slow, rhythmic movements, the exercises are performed seated or standing, with the aid of a chair if needed, and can be tailored specifically for older adults and people with special health concerns.

Though each tai chi class offers its own flair and flavor, all share one core component: to ensure that the participants feel confident and comfortable in learning and practicing the positions.

Alice Henry, left, and Dorothy Moelter, right, move through the tai chi workout with Shane Orfas at the Alpharetta YMCA.

For Shane Orfas, who teaches tai chi/quigong—a practice developed specifically for hospital recovery—weekly at the Ed Isakson YMCA in Alpharetta, the class is about cultivating harmony between the mind and body. He opened his session by reassuring everyone that the practice is gentle and integrative, reminding them, “You’re in the right place.” He then inquired about particular concerns so he could customize the practice to students’ needs.

At the North Cobb Senior Center in Acworth, where Dempsey went for tai chi, teacher Tara Vroman’s approach is similar to Orfas’ approach. Vroman stressed the importance not only of warm up and cool down, but also said she goes “with how the class is feeling.” Generally, her students focus on balance and fall prevention.

On one day recently, Vroman stood at the front of the class, gave an overview of the next hour and discussed any concerns. Dempsey, seated at the edge of the class, began her warmup in her chair.

Sharon Almon, right, and Jeanette Dempsey, left, follow Vroman’s instructions.

In Orfas’s class, the focus was also on balance. His opening meditation encouraged the students to visualize what balance looks like and to consider the harmony of one’s energy. Orfas asked the students to be in touch with their physical self and space. After the meditation, Orfas began with slow, gentle movements while piano music played softly in the background.

Vroman’s class had a similar atmosphere. Instrumental music from the Tai Chi for Health Institute played in the background. The participants followed Vroman’s lead; her instructions were clear, thoughtful and encouraging. As she guided them through heel and toe movements, she reminded them to proceed slowly, with intention, thinking of “balancing at every point.”

When students seemed apprehensive about a sequence called “waving clouds with hands,” Vroman reminded them that sometimes it takes a bit “to get the brain working…but once you get into the flow, the brain doesn’t have to work as much.” Dempsey left her chair and joined the members of the class, confidently standing and flowing through each sequence.

Kitty Alvarez moves smoothly through the positions.

For Cheryl Smith, Vroman’s class is a gathering she tries not to miss. To emphasize that point, she proudly exclaimed, “Today is my 67th birthday!”

She’s been drawn to the practice because she enjoys “slow-motion exercise and balance.” And she has some personal tai chi goals, she said, “to go into the woods and practice tai chi…to be that in tune with nature…or to practice at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.”

After working for the postal service for 31 years, Marti Billstrand, 69, joined tai chi after a total knee replacement and recovery from a broken hip. Now, Orfas’s class “is something that you make a priority; it goes on my schedule before anything else,” Billstrand said.

The physical nature of the class has helped her stay active and mobile. She’s also enthusiastic about how the pairing of yogic breathing and meditation have helped her health. “It has worked wonders,” she beamed, noting that her high blood pressure has improved as a result.

Sharon Almon, 64, sought out Vroman’s class to help with her arthritis, “and now I look forward to it every week.”

Marti Billstrand sits in position during tai chi class at the Ed Isakson YMCA in Alpharetta.

Alice Henry, 63, was especially drawn to Orfas’s class because it offered focus on the body and balance, but also integrated brief meditation into the practice. Henry confessed that she “had many misconceptions about yoga and tai chi.” Before beginning Orfas’ class “I walked through the world unconscious…I have two grandchildren and I want to stay active. Tai chi makes my body better for myself and for them.”

In fact, she said that friends ask her what’s different about her. “They see a difference in my energy. With the practice of tai chi, you look different, you act different,” Henry said.

Orfas’s student, Dorothy Moelter, 80, who practices chair tai chi, was enthusiastic about what the practice has done for her. She’d developed bone spurs on her spine as a result of a form of arthritis that can lead to severe, chronic pain and immobility. tai chi has given her a new lease on life. Moelter said that she couldn’t turn her head before her practice began. “But,” she said, beaming, “look at me now!” She turned her head from side to side.

As both Vroman and Orfas ended their classes, they encouraged students to check in with their bodies. How did they feel compared to an hour earlier? Orfas wrapped up with a brief meditation of gratitude; Vroman ended with the class focusing on and speaking three words: “strength, friendship, and humility.”

Dorothy Moelter reaches for her toes.

Dempsey made another confession to Vroman and the other students. “I was doing Zoomba, see, but it got to be too much at 89!” The class laughed, then began to cheer and celebrate. After all, Dempsey had begun class in the chair and by the end, she was standing and practicing with the rest of the group.

After Orfas’s class Billstrand echoed a similar sentiment about the way tai chi encourages growth, development and awareness: “This is where I am right now,” she said, referring to her progress and what lies ahead, “but it’s not where I’ll stay.”

 

Where to Find Your Flow

Many places throughout the north metro Atlanta area offer tai chi classes. Check the local senior centers, neighborhood gyms and hospital fitness centers near you. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

Cobb County Senior Services

  • East Cobb Senior Center, Marietta, 770-509-4900
  • Freeman Poole Senior Center, Smyrna, 770-801-3400
  • North Cobb Senior Center, Acworth, 770-975-7740
  • Senior Wellness Center, Marietta, 770-528-5355
  • West Cobb Senior Center, Powder Springs, 770-528-8200

Senior Services North Fulton

  • Alpharetta Senior Center, Alpharetta, 770-751-9397
  • Dorothy C. Benson Multipurpose Center, Sandy Springs, 404-612-2345
  • Roswell Senior Center, Roswell, 770-640-1583
  • Thomas Byrd Sr. House, Milton, 770-475-7500

Rising Phoenix Tai Chi

Classes on Tai Chi and Qi Gong are offered around Atlanta. For more info, email info@shouldersdown.com.

Tai Chi Association

Beginner to advanced classes are available at their two locations, Atlanta and Decatur. Call 404-488-8383 for detailed information.

YMCA

Fifteen locations are scattered throughout north metro Atlanta, offering a variety of activities and classes for all ages. Check our list of YMCA Centers in the area to find one near you.

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