Tai Chi Helps Seniors Live Fuller Lives

By Rebecca Davis
An elderly man practices his Taiji along the city walls of Xian. Taiji is a common sight in the mornings in parks across China enjoyed especially by the elderly population.

Huang Tonxi says the stroke he suffered 22 years ago left half his body paralyzed. Today the 72-year-old moves almost like a ballet dancer as he practices tai chi ball, a variation of the ancient Chinese form of self-defense, tai chi. Huang moves in circles practicing the routines he claims helped him regain mobility after his illness. His eyes, as in a trance, follow the ball that dances on the racquet. He sustains the movements for more than 15 minutes, at times slowing down only to execute yet another swirling circle.

Tai chi ball requires one to balance a ball on a racquet while practicing the traditional tai chi moves. The objective is to maintain the ball on the racquet during the twirling movements. Tai chi ball evolved as a variation of tai chi during the 1920s and has recently found new popularity among Chinese seniors. But the original form of tai chi, also known as tai chi chuan, originated in China more than 2,000 years ago as a form of self-defense. The practice involves gentle movements that require coordinated breathing, patience and helps improve overall muscle and joint flexibility. According to studies conducted by the Mayo Clinic, the slow movements and breathing control provide a calm feeling that aids in stress reduction.

Every morning Huang says he comes to practice at Xian's Song Yuan, or Pine Garden, a downtown park known for its pine trees and community activities. At 7:15 the park is packed with seniors practicing tai chi and socializing. They come early to use the facilities while the temperature is cool. Many seniors doing tai chi look like they are barely moving, slowly placing one leg forward while using an arm to sketch a semicircle in the air. It looks easy, but Huang says tai chi requires good balance, concentration and patience.

After Huang's stroke, he says he first tried jogging to recover muscular control of his paralyzed right side. When he found a group of people at the park practicing tai chi, he joined them and began learning the movements. He says he soon discovered that the practice was helping his joints and that he could move much better. Huang first learned about tai chi ball while watching TV, when Premier Wen Jiabao introduced the form to a visiting foregin dignitary.

Huang says tai chi is popular among seniors because it is an exercise they can practice without harming themselves. They have the time and patience required to improve their moves, compared to young, busy people who lack the time. A recent Boston Globe report, which looks at how dwindling government support affects China's growing senior population, points out that Chinese seniors do not have many options for entertainment and tend to congregate for social activities or exercise.

"This sense of community keeps China's retirees feeling alive, and in the early mornings groups of seniors often meet to do tai chi and other forms of exercise in parks and town squares," writes correspondent Jehangir S. Pocha, an important factor in a country where, Pocha says, half of the population lacks health coverage.

Huang agrees that tai chi is an easy, free way for seniors to stay healthy. Although one can practice tai chi in practically any space, big or small, parks have become a seniors' favorite choice because they can exercise and socialize in a natural environment, he says.

“I was able to cure a lot of chronic pains I had with my neck and spine, but it is good for people of all ages,” Huang says. He smiles mischievously as he adds that people who don’t have good temper should practice it, because the breathing routines and patience required to practice the movements improves their mood.