Don Houde stood before a half-dozen people as a CD player provided soft music.
“We’re going to form a big ball of energy with your right hand on top,” Houde said.
Houde rotated his hands, one over the other. He twisted his torso slowly left and then right. The group followed his movements.
“Rotate that ball of energy and exhale,” he said.
The Baker Lake Tai Chi Group was meeting at the basement of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Peru. On warm days, they gather at the lake. Houde leads the class, no charge, twice a week. Each session lasts 45 minutes.
“We tend to sit down and wait for the next meal,” Houde said. “Doggone it, you have got to exercise and move.”
Tai chi chuan
Tai chi is “graceful images of people gliding through dance-like poses,” Houde said.
Tai chi is said to unblock and encourage the flow of qi, the body’s energy, and promote yin and yang, the harmonic balance of opposing elements. It has a meditative quality, relaxing the body and mind with movement and breathing.
Tai chi is believed to date to 1200 B.C., based on martial arts moves. But whether it’s the Chinese name or links to martial arts and eastern philosophy, tai chi chuan doesn’t readily attract newcomers. It should, Houde said.
Tai chi is endorsed and recommended by Mayo Clinic, Harvard Medical School, National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to name a few. It improves balance, flexibility and strength, Houde said.
“I like to direct my activities to the seniors,” said Houde, 82. He estimates nine of every 10 tai chi followers are seniors.
“It strengthens the muscles in their legs and the torso and the muscles that hold everything together at the hips and pelvis,” Houde said. “One hour of what we do here is worth about 250 calories.”
If unsure, check with your doctor before undertaking tai chi. But as Houde said: “I’ve yet to find any physician that would discourage it.”
Tai chi conditions the legs and feet to help prevent falls, Houde said.
“You’re the only one that can prevent yourself from falling,” he said.
One of three seniors will fall this year. Tai chi improves those odds to one in five, he said. Studies have shown tai chi to reduce falls in seniors by up to 45 percent, according to Harvard Medical School.
Walking is really a controlled fall, with the fall forward stopped by an outstretched foot. The human body is top-heavy and is why many people develop back problems, Houde said.
In tai chi, you remain erect, your nose behind your toes, and step slowly, often balancing on one foot.
Tai chi becomes exercise because the movements are slowed down. Imagine martial arts in slow motion, Houde said.
“If we went really fast it would be a hell of a fight,” Houde said.
The slowness forces you to flex and balance more.
“We time ourselves to make sure we don’t speed up,” Houde said. “The slowness is an advantage.”
Speed is the beginner’s most common mistake.
“They tend to speed up and they go too fast,” Houde said.
Tai chi does not bring pain and usually does not lead to heavy breathing and perspiration.
“Seniors find that most forms of exercise will dissipate their energy and leave them tired and hyper,” Houde said. “Tai chi accumulates energy and leaves you refreshed and relaxed.”
Tai chi has different forms. Houde practices the Sun (“soon”) style, known for high stances, even tempo, minimal kicking and punching moves and small steps. He often plays music.
“You breathe more slowly with music,” he said. He uses a small gong to “prepare people mentally.”
Houde’s sessions are in three segments over 45 minutes. It begins with slow stretching and controlled breathing, followed by movements that challenge and improve balance. The last segment combines flexibility, balance and agility.
Houde was introduced to eastern philosophy while serving with the U.S. Navy during the early 1950s in the Korean War. In 1952 in Japan, he began learning juijitsu, an aggressive martial art. Seven years ago, Houde began tai chi.
“Tai chi is translated as the ultimate or supreme fist but we call it the ultimate internal energy,” Houde said.
Gene Beck of Peru practices tai chi to improve range of motion.
“I’ve been doing this for several years,” Beck said.
He noticed that while backing up his car, he had trouble turning his neck and head.
“I couldn’t move mine very easily,” Beck said. “Now I can.”
Bev Boers of Peru has been practicing tai chi for about 15 years.
“It’s a form of exercise that slows you down in a stressful world,” Boers said. “It helps you with your balance. It helps with my arthritis, with the stretching and pushing and pulling that we do. It’s in a controlled manner, slow and controlled.”
When the weather permits, the group meets outside on the east side of Baker Lake.
“The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, the crickets are cricketing, the fresh air,” Boers said. “The Chinese knew what they were doing.”