Their movements are elegant; slow, controlled, and symmetrical. The expression on their faces is calm and focussed. The room is in utter stillness. This is the scene at ten o’clock Wednesday morning at the Niagara-on-the-Lake community centre, where twelve women are gathered for the White Wing Tai Chi Group’s twice-weekly practice.
You wouldn’t guess it by watching the women in action, but their ages range from 70 to 94. Most of the women have been doing tai chi for years, many for decades. Tai chi is an ancient Chinese practice that incorporates a sequence of gentle, flowing movements, often called meditation in motion.
Diana Hepburn leads the tai chi sessions, and she’s been practising for more than 25 years. “Some days I ask myself why am I here today, I don’t feel like doing this, but I always feel really good when I leave,” said Hepburn.
She is soon joined by Elisabeth Allen, who adds “it’s amazing, even on days when I’m just watching I get energy from the group.” Allen, now 90, is an active participant on most days. She started doing tai chi in 1984, and by 1989 she had become an instructor. Others in the group quickly chime in to the conversation, sharing an inventory of the benefits they feel from doing tai chi twice a week.
“It helps with strength and balance and concentration,” said one. “It helps my memory,” said another.
“It gives you energy … It’s good for my joints, and good because it moves every muscle in my body. It’s meditative as well as being good exercise … It keeps me flexible,” the group agreed.
The women are right about tai chi, and they feel the health benefits firsthand. Nurse Practitioner Christina Huntington knows the benefits from her work with geriatric outpatients at St. Catharines Hospital. “That kind of exercise maintains healthy bones, muscles, and joints. It’s especially important as people age and muscles atrophy without regular activity,” said Huntington. She added “keeping active can minimise symptoms of chronic conditions such as arthritis, and decrease blood pressure.”
Many clinical studies have demonstrated the health benefits of tai chi. One recent study, cited by the Mayo Clinic, provided evidence that tai chi is effective in reducing falls among the elderly, which is significant because “falls are the most common cause of injury-related hospital admissions among those aged 65 years or older” according to the Canadian College of Family Physicians. Huntington added that any regular low impact exercise, including tai chi, has cognitive and psychological benefits as well. “It improves mood, reduces anxiety and depression” and provides social connection too.
The group at the NOTL Community Centre know that well. They said there is a “camaraderie and positive energy when we do tai chi together,” and when the silent practise is over, there is much discussion and sharing of experiences and practical tips, whether where to find a reliable handyman or what to expect when going to do their driving test after turning 80. Birthdays too are special social occasions, such as recently when Elisabeth Allen turned 90. There was cake and celebration, though tai chi, of course, came first.