Practicing Tai Chi can bring strength and serenity

The ancient Chinese martial art of Tai Chi is widely practiced for its health benefits and is especially good for older people, writes Margaret Jennings.

THE President’s wife Sabina Higgins is a fan — so much so that she hosted a special Tai Chi day in the Áras earlier this month, where teachers from around the country were invited to give a display.

There she spoke of the benefits that Tai Chi brings to older people like herself — a self-confidence, that comes with the flexibility and balance that the practice provides.

“It equips people to feel happy and free in their space. So many older people get strains because of being stiff but Tai Chi brings flexibility to the joints. Also when doing Tai Chi the body fills up with breath and it helps deal with the stresses of life,” she told the gathering.

One person invited to the Aras and who is proof of those sentiments, is 59-year-old Cork Tai Chi teacher, Ann McIlraith, who says when she was first attracted to the practice in her early 30s she was told she would develop “the strength of a lumberjack, the flexibility of a child and the wisdom of a sage”.

After 26 years of practice she is a good advertisement for growing older healthily. “Tai Chi keeps me strong and supple,” she says “but I would not claim to be a sage — although the practice has brought a sense of calm and a clarity to my life.”

Older people often take up Tai Chi because of its reputation for helping with balance and muscle strength. How does this happen? “We move slowly in Tai Chi sinking our weight completely into one foot at a time; this works the muscles in a deep way drawing in nutrients that encourage growth and repair,” says Ann.

“The large circular movements of the arms and the constant turning of the waist opens and relaxes the body. The sinking and rising movements of the legs, the opening and closing of the arms and the constant turning of the waist all lead to an increase in flexibility.”

Michael O’Callaghan from Passage West, Co Cork, has been attending Ann’s classes for 17 years since he first saw people practising in the Phoenix Park in Dublin, when he was in his early 50s and was attracted to the slow pace of the movement.

“I found it difficult at first but before long I was hooked,” he says. Now aged 70, he has found it gives him “a physical self-confidence” which also ties into emotional and mental wellbeing.

He practises a half hour every morning in between weekly classes and takes to Cork’s Fitzgerald Park for open air sessions with Ann during the summer — perhaps inspiring others, like he was, all that time ago.

Another of Ann’s students, is 81-year-old Carmel Buckley from Ballinlough, who took up Tai Chi with her 85-year-old sister Frances Kelly, two years ago. “It’s very gentle and relaxing; there’s no pressure and no pushing and we find it is very calming,” she says.

The calming influence may partially be due to the open expansive body postures that are part of Tai Chi practice. Recent studies have shown that those type of movements change our physiology, says Ann.

“These open postures cause our brains to increase testosterone — an empowering hormone — and decrease the stress hormone, cortisol, in the blood.

“These changes allow us to feel strong and good about ourselves. This may explain why it has often been recommended as a therapy for those suffering from depression.”

Tai Chi also moves energy in the body, releasing blocks similar to the way acupuncture needles release energy blocks.

“The daily practice keeps our energy moving and helps the pathways in our bodies to stay open and fluid rather than becoming stiff and rigid,” says Ann. “In Tai Chi we say when people begin practicing, their movements are wooden. As they progress they become more fluid and finally they become light like air.”

The silent flowing postures are a meditation, a form of mindful movement. This way of being present in the body awakens awareness of subtle shifts in emotional and energetic states. “When we learn to recognise our emotional states we develop the ability to respond rather than just react to life.

This has a very calming effect on our mind and body and leads to a sense of equanimity and acceptance,” says Ann. “This may be one of the greatest benefits to the practice — taking charge of our emotions.”

Meanwhile, Mary Harkin of Age & Opportunity says they can see a rise in interest in Tai Chi by older people countrywide, through their Go for Life programme, as it’s taking up five per cent of their Small Grant Scheme, run with the Irish Sports Council.

As our ageing population rises, and with Sabina Higgins highlighting its benefits, it’s likely this gentle exercise will become even more popular.

* Details: Ann McIlraith, tel: 087-6616800 or email: 


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