When 77-year-old Carol Stafford of Villa Rica was first introduced to tai chi, she was in her 20s.
It was the 1980s, and her mother was taking a tai chi class at a senior center in California.
“I would watch her in class and became interested in it,” Stafford recalled. “That was the first time I’ve ever really seen it, and the seniors seemed to be getting so much out of it.”
Over the years, she took a few classes while living in San Francisco. When she moved to Georgia in the late 90s, she had a hard time finding a local class she could afford.
“There was one tai chi studio in Carrollton, but the classes were a little out of my budget,” she said.
Stafford figured she could practice tai chi on her own but soon realized she was missing one key element.
“I don’t think I have the discipline,” she said. “I had the DVDs. I didn’t use them, so a class was really what I needed.”
Stafford enjoyed her yoga classes through Carrollton Parks and Rec, but the department didn’t offer tai chi.
In 2010, she had bilateral hip replacement surgery that prevented her from doing yoga. So, she continued her search for a tai chi class, which is often recommended as a safe exercise to do after surgery with a doctor’s approval.
She asked the senior center if they were offering any tai chi classes since the practice is so beneficial for that age group.
“I was focusing on the senior center, and I kept going and asking because I thought that would be the logical place to check,” she said.
But a trip to the library led her to what she was looking for.
Finding Her Chi
About four years ago, Stafford came across a flyer at Villa Rica Public Library that caught her eye.
“I saw the flyer for a free introductory tai chi class at the library,” she said.
The class, Tai Chi for Health, was offered by Tanner Health System’s Get Healthy, Live Well — a community health collaborative — working to provide community members with healthy lifestyle classes focusing on chronic disease management, prevention and wellness.
Get Healthy, Live Well’s Tai Chi for Health classes help participants increase mobility, improve physical function and reduce stress. Based on Sun and Yang style tai chi, the program combines deep breathing and relaxation with slow, gentle movements. Fundamental movement sets are taught, along with warm-up and cool-down exercises. Qigong breathing exercises are also included.
“We all deserve to feel good and be healthy,” said Phyllis Head, a tai chi instructor at Get Healthy, Live Well. “Tai chi is an excellent form of exercise that can help you manage chronic pain, reduce stress and even improve balance. It’s also a lot of fun. Participants often tell me they enjoy the class because it’s also a time to socialize and meet new friends.”
After taking her first Intro to Tai Chi class in Villa Rica, Stafford was hooked and went on to take the advanced classes. She described the class atmosphere as being relaxed and very positive.
“It’s a very welcoming and encouraging environment,” she said. “Phyllis makes sure everyone feels comfortable and encouraged. There’s just lots of love in the classes. It’s just a wonderful feeling of camaraderie.”
Stafford is thrilled that a health system provides tai chi classes to residents in the community.
“I appreciate the fact that Tanner did the research and concluded that tai chi contributes to enhanced health and wellbeing on so many levels,” she says. “I’m so impressed with tai chi as a discipline because you get so many benefits from it. It’s terrific for balance. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that if I don’t work on my balance, it will get worse as a natural consequence of aging.”
While the tai chi movements may be too slow for some, she enjoys it and likens it to a dance or poetry in motion.
“It’s more fun to do it with a group because then it’s like a dance,” she said. “It’s called a moving meditation. When you finish the form, you feel so energized and calm at the same time. It’s an extremely peaceful feeling.”
Tai chi also helps build confidence and reduce the fear of falling.
“If you do tai chi and become more confident in your balance, just that confidence will be a fall prevention exercise because you don’t have that hesitancy or fear of falling that is so dangerous,” she said.
The Student Has Become the Teacher
When Head asked Stafford and a few other participants to become certified instructors, Stafford didn’t hesitate to sign up for the certification training.
“I felt very confident in my knowledge about tai chi, and since I’ve been doing it so much with Phyllis, I knew the form really well,” she said. “I thought it would be great to share it with as many people as possible.”
Head described Stafford as a dedicated student and knew she’d make a great instructor.
“Carol is so supportive of other students and wants everyone to experience the joy of tai chi,” she said. “She has a wealth of knowledge on tai chi, is always willing to share what she knows with others and is always learning herself. I knew she would be an excellent instructor.”
Carol began teaching tai chi in March to the residents of The Birches at Villa Rica.
“I’m really excited about tai chi, and I’m looking for ways to spread it into the community and expand it as much as possible,” she said. “Tanner is doing a wonderful job of making that happen, so I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”
Finding Joy in Movement
Stafford has a word of advice for people who may be intimidated about trying tai chi because they’re afraid they won’t be able to learn the moves.
“The value in tai chi is not the dance or learning a routine,” she said. “It’s the underlying principles of learning how to breathe, hold your body and move. It's about moving slowly against a gentle resistance, focusing your mind and relaxing into an easy flow.”
To sign up for tai chi, visit tanner.org/taichi. For more information about Get Healthy, Live well, visit GetHealthyLiveWell.org.