Tai Chi: The Art of Breathing and Balance

By Mike Morris March 15, 2013 12:00
Dan Sandelin, martial arts expert Photo by Ben Hicks

Dan Sandelin, martial arts expert; photo by Ben Hicks

Foothill seniors are building agility, strength and balance through an ancient Chinese practice that incorporates slow movement, breathing and meditation.

The centuries-old practice of tai chi has become popular with millions of Americans in recent years, especially boomers and seniors looking for a gentle form of exercise that keeps their minds sharp.

“It keeps me limber and it’s mentally relaxing,” says George Johnson, a 71-year-old Sonora man who has been practicing tai chi for several months.  “When I’m doing the moves, everything goes out of my mind and I’m just focusing.”

The Area 12 Agency on Aging sponsors weekly tai chi classes – three in Tuolumne County and one in Calaveras County – for those 60 and older. “The response has been overwhelming,” with more than 120 seniors enrolled,  says Kristin Millhoff, the agency’s assistant director.

At Five Claw Martial Arts studio in East Sonora, where the Tuolumne County classes are held, 11 seniors – 9 women and two men – line up in three rows facing a mirrored wall. On this cold morning, icy roads have cut normal attendance in half.

Students, either barefoot or wearing socks, stand on the red carpet. Tranquil music plays as the group starts breathing exercises that lead into a series of slow, graceful motions. Teacher Dan Sandelin’s calm voice guides the students through the moves, with names such as cobra, tiger and crane.

“Keep your chest proud, your chin high,” he encourages.

The group eventually goes from warrior-like stances to kneeling, followed by sitting stretches and a 10-minute meditation, for which Sandelin turns off the lights.

Completing her fifth tai chi class, Donna Johnson says she’s already more flexible and that her balance has improved.

“I couldn’t stand on one leg before, and now I can without tipping over,” says Johnson. “I only teetered once today.”

The 68-year-old Sonoran says tai chi has also made her aware of the importance of breathing deeply, which students are encouraged to practice at home.

“It clears your head,” she says. “You get rid of all that stress.”

With origins in Chinese martial arts, tai chi is now recognized as a low-impact, relaxing exercise that helps with overall health.

According to The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, tai chi can in some cases relieve symptoms of depression in older people. Other studies show it may ease the effects of arthritis and fibromyalgia, a disease which causes chronic pain and tenderness throughout the body.

Tai chi can also lower blood pressure, enhance mental concentration and improve balance and stability by strengthening ankles and knees.

Benefits like these have prompted senior centers and agencies such as Area 12 to offer classes.

Another plus: The exercises don’t require deep bending or the use of gym equipment, making it easier and more comfortable for older people.

“It’s not hard, but you do get a workout,” says Donna Johnson, adding that concentrating on the moves keeps her brain active.

Area 12 began offering a weekly tai chi class in East Sonora about two years ago and soon expanded to twice weekly. Weekly classes were then offered at Five Claw’s studio in Vallecito (taught by Sandelin’s son, Niccoli). And about a year ago, a third Tuolumne County class was added.

Federal funding from the Older Americans Act, designed to go towards programs which promote health and fitness for seniors, keeps the cost low, at a suggested donation of $2 per class.

Participants must register through Area 12 for classes, which average about 30 students each. There are now 94 seniors registered in Tuolumne County and 29 in Calaveras.

LuAnne Spackman, 71, who has been attending the tai chi classes in Vallecito since they began, says they have become part of her weekly routine.

“I absolutely love tai chi,” the Angels Camp woman says. “It makes you feel so good. When you learn to control your breathing it really elevates your whole mood.”

Fellow student Karen Keatinge, 77, calls the program “wonderful” and credits it with improving her breathing, concentration and posture. Plus, the class has created a sense of community among the participants.

Dan Sandelin has designed his hour-long Area 12 classes to include fluid motions instead of holding poses for an extended time. Constant and repetitive motion confers more exercise benefits and generates oxygen throughout the body, he says.

The 49-year-old martial arts expert opened Five Claw’s East Sonora studio in 2005 and the Vallecito location five years later. He enjoys seeing students who were once unable to even walk backwards learn how to glide through the motions in all directions. Some have joined Five Claw’s more advanced tai chi classes, and a few have even started a Senior Kung Fu class.

His message to seniors: “As we get older, we don’t have to stop – we don’t have to bow out, we don’t have to quit.”

That philosophy resonates with his oldest student, 100-year-old Tommy Manson.

The Sonora woman looks forward to attending class each Wednesday morning. While Manson has noticed the physical benefits of tai chi, she has other reasons for going.

“For me, it’s a spiritual experience,” she says.

For more information, contact Kristin or Janet at Area 12 Agency on Aging, (209) 532-6272. 

© 2013 Friends and Neighbors Magazine


By Mike Morris March 15, 2013 12:00
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