Teaching Seniors T’ai Chi

©Copyright 2012 by Robert Chuckrow

Some T’ai-Chi teachers have reservations about teaching seniors. They feel that they would need to water down T’ai Chi and that the benefits are not worth the effort required. I have been teaching T’ai Chi classes specifically for seniors for well over a decade and find it extremely rewarding. Moreover, I feel no need to water down my teaching. There is, however, a need to have more patience and not expect the same results as from younger students.

True, many seniors will not be able to learn the movements as quickly or do them as well as younger people can, but that doesn’t mean that they are not “good” at T’ai Chi. My definition of being good at T’ai Chi is (a) getting the benefits and (b) making progress in the art. Granted, there are elements of T’ai-Chi with which some seniors have difficulty and that can be discouraging to them. Often their leg-strength and range of motion are limited. So I remind them that there are three levels of progress: (1) noticeable improvement, (2) arrest of deterioration that would otherwise occur, (3) deterioration but at a slower rate than without practicing T’ai Chi. For many, noticeable improvement can be achieved.

Recently, I had a student in one of my senior classes whose movements differed widely from what I was teaching. After class, I asked her if she felt that she was getting anything out of the class. Her response impressed me with how important the class was to her. She said, “If not for this class, I would stay in bed all day.”

Another student in her eighties recently told me that, the other day, she was walking downstairs and fell down the last two steps. She said, “I relaxed and rolled. I scraped my shin a bit, but otherwise I’m fine.”

A student in her seventies said, “Before I started studying I had fallen a number of times, and one time I fractured my wrist. During the two years that I’ve been studying T’ai Chi, I haven’t fallen once except for a few days ago, but I was not injured.”

Years ago, I taught T’ai Chi at a local community center. One student was an elderly woman who, when we did meditative floor-work, was unable to rise to standing. Several students and I had to help her up, and it was like lifting a dead weight. One day she said, “Don’t help me, I’m going to get up by myself. I’ve been working on it.” It took her a while, but she was able to rise. Then she insisted on lifting, folding, and putting away her mat, which was a heavy, professional one supplied by the community center. From then on, she was on her own. Such improvement is truly gratifying.

Less-dramatic but substantial progress can be seen in many seniors who study T’ai Chi. For example, one senior who started recently was unable to follow even the simplest movements—even with extensive corrections. In just a few months, however, his coordination improved noticeably.

When we are very young, we learn how to crawl, walk, speak, read, ride a bicycle, ice skate, do sports, etc. By the time people are middle-aged, unless they do sports, dance, martial arts, etc., almost everything they do is automatic, with no conscious thought involved. So when presented with the coordination-challenging movements of T’ai Chi, most seniors have difficulty, but their perseverance produces results that are very rewarding both to them and their teacher. Also rewarding are the appreciation and more-highly developed humor and perspective of older students.

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