• Rowan Mulvey’s class at the senior center passes test of time
By Naomi Klouda
If a doctor were to prescribe T’ai Chi for arthritis or T’ai Chi for memory loss, it might sound like a bit of a stretch.
Yet, at the Homer Senior Center, the art of T’ai Chi taught by Rowan Mulvey for several years now has served good medicine to dozens of seniors through the practice.
“I’ve had bad arthritis for while now,” said senior Gerrianne Reiter. “T’ai Chi helps with the pain.”
For Lani Raymond, T’ai helps with breathing, flexibility and memory. “I almost forgot to mention memory,” Raymond quipped. “There are 108 moves, and you need to remember each to do them in the right order. I’m not there yet.”
T’ai Chi is an Asian form of exercise characterized by a series of slow and deliberate ballet-like body movements.
The routines keep participants constantly moving, but are gentle on the joints.
The class, taught for one-hour two days a week in the dining room annex at the Homer Senior Citizens Center, is open to the public as well. HSC offers the classes Mulvey teaches for any community member. Members of HSC pay $3 per class, while the general public is asked to pay $5 per class.
Mulvey was approached in 2005 by the Friendship Center’s activities coordinator, Kathy Hedges, to offer T’ai Chi to residents after she had read of its many health benefits. Now six years into the practice, many seniors in town have benefited from the experience.
“The thought of the (HSC) board was that it would be a wonderful thing to make available. Its benefits are increased flexibility and range of motion, increased strength and stamina, improved digestion, better sleep,” Mulvey said. “People find they’re able to be more hardy to stresses in other parts of their lives.”
The moves in Ta’i Chi can help strengthen during a time in life when the elderly fear falling and breaking a hip, though Mulvey’s students have ranged from age 22 to 80. It is often referred to as ‘meditation in motion’ since it corporates the whole being, not just the body.
“It is structured in such a way so they can come in an ongoing basis. They don’t have to sign up and then come to every class,” she said.
Mulvey learned the classical art of T’ai Chi Chuan Yang Long Form about 12 years ago from a master in Nikiski, Larry Fred Staatz, who offered a course at the Kachamak Bay Campus.
After receiving training from the root teacher, called a sensei, the tradition is to then study further with other masters, which Mulvey completed in northern New York, in Montreal, and in south Florida.
“This was never a dead art; it was never a lost art, but was practiced continuously for many centuries,” she tells her students at a Thursday session. “This testifies to its strength.”
Each move incorporates breathing, so that even the internal organs are gaining benefits.
“Moves are based on the rhythm of the breath – each move has a specific part of the breath that is associated with it. By the time the session is complete, every muscle from the head to the toe has been exercised,” Mulvey explains.
Poetic names characterize the moves. “Pick up the needle from the sea floor,” Mulvey instructs the students. “Carry tiger to the mountain. White crane spreads wings.”
As she goes, Mulvey explains myology or the basic units of muscles in action. As one move targets leg muscles, she talks about the gastrocnemius muscle of the calf. Beneath that, lower on the leg, is the soleus, which stretches underneath the gastrocnemius as well.
“This matters because two different groups of muscle are being stretched, depending on whether your leg is stretched or bent,” she said. “I like them to know what each move is impacting.”
Gerrianne Reiter, who said T’ai chi helps her with arthritis pain, has been with Mulvey since she started offering the classes six years ago.
How the pain relief occurs is both by lessening the pain and helping the person cope with pain, Mulvey said.
Another student, Marilyn Dougdale, has faithfully come to class twice a week for the past two years. Since she had to miss the Thursday session, Marilyn came anyway to explain the reason.
“I’m really disappointed that I can’t stay. After twice a week for two years, I am really hooked on this form of exercise,” she said. “It helps me maintain my balance, and helps me feel better in so many ways.”
Senior centers across the country usually have some T’ai Chi program offered, after the gentle exercise was recommended by such far reaching organizations as the AARP, the National Council on Aging and the Mayo clinic.
“This gave more people more access to it,” Raymond said. “And it’s open to the public, for all ages, since it’s available here. We’re really hoping more people will take advantage of the classes. Because you can’t do it without an instructor.”
A chair-exercise version of T’ai Chi also is taught at HSC by Mulvey. Starting again in January, Mulvey will offer a T’ai Chi class through the Homer Community Recreation Program as well.
For more information, call 235-7655.
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