If you peek into Tallgrass Creek retirement community's classroom any Friday morning at 8:30, you'll see around 22 residents performing the ancient Chinese discipline known as tai chi. But you won't hear the usual chatter of many group functions because the precise, meditative movements are performed slowly with lights dimmed, in silence. Tai chi, it appears, has found a home in Overland Park, KS.
"It is a very quiet, peaceful 'meditation in movement,'" says resident Merrill Stiles, a retired physician who began teaching tai chi to interested Tallgrass Creek residents in 2009. "It is a time when you are with others in spirit but can concentrate solely on your body and mind."
Tai chi, originally designed as a self-defense martial art, has grown in popularity worldwide as an exercise, especially among seniors. The medical community views it as an age-appropriate, non-stressful exercise that promotes both mental and physical wellness.
Merrill learned tai chi years ago while practicing medicine in Houston, Teas., where he and wife Carolyn lived.
"I actually learned tai chi from a nun at a retreat I attended," says Merrill. "I continued to practice for a while, but over time, other responsibilities took precedence and I got away from it."
Merrill and Carolyn moved to Tallgrass Creek in 2008. The next year, Merrill took a tai chi class offered at the community. His interest in the gentle exercise resurfaced, and he began teaching the class.
'You can hardly call it a class," laughs Merrill. "Initially, it was just one other resident and me, and eventually we were joined by another resident."
Each 30-minute class begins with several minutes of gentle warm-up movements. With soft music playing in the background, class participants go through 12 more exercises known as Tai Chi Sun, repeating them four times. Then they move on to another form of the discipline known as Tai Chi, which consists of 20 different movements.
At the conclusion of each session, the group gives themselves a round of applause and thanks, then spends another few minutes in silent meditation, leaving as they wish. Merrill spends one-on-one time with new participants, introducing them to the movements so they can quickly enjoy the class.
Resident Nancy Yates has been a devoted class participant for several years and says the benefits of tai chi are obvious.
"It is such relaxing, good therapy," says Nancy. "Over time, tai chi has helped my balance and just helped me move more smoothly. Merrill is a great encourager and teacher and makes it easy to follow and join in."
Merrill, who specialized in internal medicine and gerontology for more than 20 years, is a confirmed believer in the benefits of tai chi.
"Like most people who practice tai chi, we all feel the greatest benefit is improvement in our balance," says Merrill. "It has also been shown that those who practice tai chi have a lower incidence of falling and less joint pain."
Merrill says other benefits include improvements in breathing and strength. But there is another reason the tight-knit members of Merrill's tai chi class continue to return.
"We all experience a wonderful sense of well-being and peace that carries on after each session," says Merrill. "It's therapeutic relaxation, both mentally and physically. Where else will you voluntarily and joyfully spend 30 minutes in silence with 20 of your friends and never miss the usual chit-chat?"