Students move with precision, intention during training designed to improve balance.

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THE CLASS MOVED slowly, most of the students flowing with precision and intention. I, on the other hand, looked around wondering what it meant to “grasp the sparrow’s tail.”

I was taking tai chi at the Greenwood Senior Center. The class is aimed at seniors, and I was the youngest one there, but the regulars had an ease in their practice, while I improvised.

The class meets twice a week with teacher Karin Collins, who specializes in the Yang style of tai chi. Many students have been practicing with her for years, and it shows in their familiarity with the practice.

Momentum Energy Arts

Taijiquan (or tai chi chuan) is a Chinese martial art that includes breathwork and martial movements. The movement is slow and fluid, with a focus on shifting weight from foot to foot and rotating the body in different directions, all of which makes it a great option for older people interested in retaining balance and function as they age.

Collins took us through some warm-ups, then we started right in with the form. I tried to stay on pace, craning my head to see how to “part the wild horse’s mane.”

I was relieved when Collins stopped us to drill a few movements. We focused first on our hips. Collins told us to relax and loosen our hips, and to notice how it felt in our knees and ankles. I felt my weight get heavier toward my feet. She also told us to let our wrists and elbows get heavy, and my arms relaxed.

We practiced shifting our weight from one foot to the other, and did some footwork, moving 70 percent of our weight to one foot, for example. Keep your center line of gravity over one foot at a time, Collins instructed.

The slow movements helped me feel how to stay balanced on one foot, particularly during a move when we kicked. All of the students managed the kick with aplomb.

We also practiced moving our hands through different positions, and Collins quizzed the students on them, including ones she calls earth, water, fire and metal.

Next, she walked us through “needle at sea bottom,” a movement that started with our weight on one foot, moving forward with one arm to block, shifting our weight again, and letting our hands relax — or at least that’s what I retained. I was impressed watching some of the older students balance on one foot for extended periods of time. She told us to relax our ribs to rotate side to side.

After the drills, Collins had us do the entire 20-movement form again. I felt more grounded after the drills, and focused on centering my weight rather than worrying too much about my hands. I started to get the feel for a few movements, like holding an energy ball and boxing ears.

Ken Brox, 74, has been doing tai chi for seven years. He started hoping to maintain balance to “stay upright as long as I can.” He likes learning biomechanics and more about how people move from Collins. He knows enough now to do it on his own.

Collins focuses on how the hips, ankles and feet move for balance, and has students practice using the upper body to balance and rotate. The slow focus moves the body into a parasympathetic recovery and repair mode, she said.

I felt far more relaxed at the end of the class. The slow movement also helped me notice my balance and challenged it all at once. It’s a practice that anyone, not just seniors, can benefit from.