The wind blew across Bombardier Park with a force that nullified the heat of the morning sun. Twenty people stood in rows moving their arms and legs in slow, synchronized movements, the Green Mountains their backdrop.
They had come out to attend Milton Parks and Recreation’s Tai Chi in the Park program, open to seniors ages 50 and up.
“People like it; it’s a gentle exercise,” said Betsy Nelson, the group’s certified instructor. “It’s fun being outside.”
It was the fifth and final free summer-session class sponsored by Age Well and hosted by the town of Milton. The event brought about 20 students per week, ranging in age from 50 to 84, according to Kym Duchesneau, Milton’s recreation coordinator.
The instructors hail from Tai Chi Vermont, a nonprofit that trains teachers statewide. Nelson and the rec department initiated Milton’s program after receiving numerous requests for summer programming from seniors who had enrolled in winter and spring sessions in the community room.
The winter session had such high demand that Nelson taught two sections of the class to enable 54 participants to practice the martial art, Duchesneau said.
“Being outside for tai chi in the park just adds a whole other element to it, too,” she said. “A positive element.”
According to Nelson, a benefit of practicing tai chi on different terrain, such as the grassy lawn of Bombardier Park, is working on balance.
“One of the big goals of the program is fall prevention,” she said. Tai chi helps participants become more aware of their bodies by focusing on weight distribution, posture, breathing and movement. For Nelson’s part, tai chi is a way to help her students become more attentive to their bodily needs and capabilities.
“You try and just instill that awareness,” she said. “I’m getting older — what’s still strong? What can I do? What can’t I do?’” she explained.
The exercise is adaptable: Students can go at their own pace and change movements to work with any aches or limitations they may have. Nelson has taught seated tai chi to participants with disabilities.
“The only wrong you can do in tai chi is moving too fast or lifting up too high,” she said. “Nothing should hurt.”
Sharon Snyder of Georgia enjoys the activity for its meditative qualities.
“You’re concentrating and it’s really quiet,” she said. “It’s very calming. With the outside world we all need something [calming].”
For Carol Thompson of Milton and her husband, Mike, the martial art has been restorative and relaxing.
“I have arthritis pretty bad so I can’t do yoga,” Thompson said. “I read up about tai chi, and we went to check it out, and I liked it.”
Thompson has since practiced for two years under Nelson’s instruction in the community room and in Bombardier Park.
Shortly after beginning the practice, Mike started to accompany her. He has a shoulder problem his wife said has “loosened up” over the course of the sessions.
“The instructor is great, it’s a bunch of nice people and it’s something I’ve felt I needed to do for me,” she said.
While tai chi won’t cure her arthritis, Thompson said it helps with the pain. Additionally, the practice has helped her across other areas of health and wellbeing.
“It relaxed me, and it gave me a little more energy,” she said. “There were times where I would say, ‘Oh I really don’t feel like going there,’ and I would force myself to go, and I was always glad I did.”
According to Anne Bower, president of Tai Chi Vermont, doing tai chi in a group setting has its own benefits.
“People come together and they move together, and there’s something quite magical about moving together,” she said. “It actually has been shown to raise serotonin levels in the brain.”
She added the deep-breathing element helps with relaxation, serving to reduce anxiety and stress, feelings she thinks are all too common today.
There is no shortage of benefits for the body, Bower said. Tai chi helps improve posture, spatial awareness, can reduce bone loss from osteoporosis, can help with sugar control for diabetics and can help lower blood pressure, among other advantages.
Although the exact origin of the exercise is unknown, Bower said, some believe tai chi formed as a slowed-down version of martial arts created by people in the mountains of China who wished to disguise their martial arts practice.
“But we are doing tai chi for our health, principally,” Bower said of Tai Chi Vermont’s 130 instructors and thousands of participants.
Back in the park, Nelson spoke as the wind whipped through the field and participants departed from their final summer-session class.
“The goals are to give people a positive experience that makes them feel good and relaxed, helps them be aware of their bodies,” Nelson said. “If we can help prevent some falls, that is awesome.”