Slow-moving tai chi offers calm and flexibility to seniors

Moving to the sounds of Far Eastern music and a woman's tape-recorded voice gently reminding them to inhale and exhale, participants lift their hands and arms as if praying to the moon, reaching to the sky and pulling waves from the ocean.

While moving in slow motion, breathing as the taped voice calls out sounds like "sssshhhhiii" and "hhhhhoooo," the exercisers look calm and relaxed. Their lips curl in smiles. Their eyes, slightly unfocused, gaze upward as if they were miles away.

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, a dozen or so seniors show up for Bing Jyr Tou's tai chi qi gon class at Montefiore Senior Center at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

The class meets early — 8:15 a.m.– across the hall from the senior center overlooking the JCC's outdoor, enclosed courtyard.

While all the exercisers are over 55 and in relatively good health, many have limitations. Tai chi is a gentle form of physical activity that helps them. The teacher himself suffered a major back injury and it was tai chi, a method that he says helps people find their "hidden energy,'' that brought him back to health.

Others in the class have suffered strokes, heart attacks and polio.

Esther Selleck, 68, of San Francisco said she started taking the class under her doctor's encouragement to help her regain balance. She said the exercises are helping.

Edith Holtz, 73, of San Francisco, who has been taking the class for almost three years, said she has never felt better and enjoys her two mornings a week of peaceful exercise.

Holtz said she feels better because her blood circulates more efficiently after bending, stretching and swaying. Other participants also say tai chi provides physical benefits.

But most importantly, it is the mental rewards of the class that keeps members coming back. The classes are calming.

Ann Marie Israel, 68, of San Francisco, said tai chi is the one activity she does all week that gives her a sense of peace.

"I run around all day long. This is the one time I have to myself that makes me slow down and regain my stability," she said. "It's a time to be mellow."

The Montefiore Senior Center, 3200 California St., S.F., offers a variety of classes for people 55 and older, including tai chi, low-impact aerobics, a walking clinic and therapeutic exercise for wheelchair users.