Retiree Doreen Kuehnhackl has fallen downstairs, fallen off horses and fallen down a mountain while skiing. Now she’s doing her best to prevent future falls by learning tai chi, an ancient Chinese martial art known for its many health benefits.
“I have lived life,” said Kuehnhackl, a Sebastopol resident who hints at her age by acknowledging she’s a baby boomer.
Kuehnhackl is among those studying tai chi with longtime instructor Garrett Chinn, who offers “Tai Chi — Boomers and Beyond,” a drop-in class for older adults at the Sebastopol Community Cultural Center.
It’s one of four class locations offered by Chinn in Sonoma County; four days a week he teaches tai chi in San Francisco, where he’s had a significant following for nearly 40 years.
Comfortably dressed in gray leggings and a loose-fitting blouse, Kuehnhackl was enthusiastic on a recent Friday morning about her fourth tai chi session.
“It’s just like meditation in motion,” she said. “I love it, and I love the spiritual part, the need to connect and stay focused.”
She’s hopeful the slow, repetitive movements will help her bothersome knee, strengthen her core and prevent future stumbles or falls.
Chinn, who specializes in tai chi for older adults, welcomes students like Kuehnhackl, who are proactive in their own health care.
His classes feature traditional form instruction and include an adapted sitting routine so he can accommodate students at all levels, including those using walkers or wheelchairs.
Newcomers like Kuehnhackl appreciate Chinn’s encouragement and patient instruction.
“I’m really, really impressed with the way he handles his classes,” she said. “There are students more experienced than me, but he still works me in.”
Chinn, 64, strives to help every student, from those who’ve practiced tai chi for years to those who’ve dropped in for their first session. Although some of his classes are semesterlong, others, as in Sebastopol, are drop-in programs.
“As a teacher with drop-ins, I have to come up with a class plan right away that addresses all different levels,” he said.
He brings decades of experience to the task. Chinn has taught tai chi to thousands of older adults, currently with 21 classes and nearly 500 students in San Francisco and Sonoma County.
He took his first class in the early 1970s, when he was doing community activist work in San Francisco during a period of unrest for underpaid laborers, like those in the garment industry. As tensions mounted, he figured knowing a martial art could be helpful.
“Tai chi really spoke to me. I could defend myself without hurting someone,” Chinn said.
He’s studied extensively with Benjamin Lo, a renowned master instructor who continues to share advanced tips and correct forms during their occasional visits.
A third-generation San Franciscan, Chinn moved to Sebastopol in 2015 so he and his wife could be midway between their extended families. Chinn expanded his tai chi instruction to Sebastopol and Santa Rosa a few months ago, offering his specialized expertise to older adults in his new community.
Earlier in his career, Chinn worked in San Francisco for three years as an emergency medical technician, often assisting elderly people who’d suffered falls.
“I picked up so many seniors who had fallen,” he said. “And of all places, there really were no formal tai chi lessons for seniors that were taught more than follow-the-leader.”
Chinn reasoned that proper tai chi instruction specifically for aging adults could reduce their propensity for falling, lessen the impact of falls and improve lives. Tai chi emphasizes slow, continuously fluid movements with concentration on breathing and mental focus. The various postures and weight shifts from side to side can help improve balance and prevent falls.
Consumer Reports magazine recently shared an analysis published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society indicating that seniors practicing tai chi can reduce their risk of falling by 50 percent. The “Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi: 12 Weeks to a Healthy Body, Strong Heart & Sharp Mind” expounds the multiple benefits of regularly practicing tai chi.
Students like Annita Clark-Weaver of Sebastopol know first-hand the benefits of tai chi. She’s been working with Chinn for more than a year, after meeting at a neighborhood block party and hosting tai chi sessions with him in her converted garage before he officially began teaching in Sonoma County.
She now attends his classes at the SCCC, with a particular goal in mind.
“It’s balance. I’m 86 years old and have had some falls,” Clark-Weaver said. “I started with the idea it would be good for me, but not much fun.”
She’s been pleasantly surprised, but acknowledges tai chi is an exercise and not always easy. It’s been challenging at times, but she’s progressed considerably, is no longer assisted by chairs at her side, “and I’m starting to enjoy it.”
Not one to slow down as she ages, Clark-Weaver said precautions like taking tai chi are smart moves for octogenarians like herself.
“You don’t even want to scrape your knee anymore because it takes a long time to heal,” she said.
Tai chi provides “more awareness of my body. I feel like I’m just aware more of my body,” Clark-Weaver said. “I really have to focus and stay focused in life.”
Chinn takes great satisfaction in the many comments he receives about the difference tai chi makes in students’ lives.
He recalls one woman in her late 70s telling him she’d be missing class for a few months because of her upcoming back surgery. She showed up the following week, excited to tell Chinn she’d avoided surgery by passing a series of tests issued by her doctor.
The student explained her progress to her doctor by saying, “I’ve just been doing tai chi.”
Chinn’s heard numerous accounts of the benefits to the mind-body practice of tai chi. He’s taught in hospitals, at drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, at adult day programs, senior centers and for those with Alzheimer’s disease.
He founded the popular tai chi program in the Older Adults Department at City College of San Francisco, one of the largest and oldest of its kind, and now offers classes through the Santa Rosa Junior College Older Adults Program.
Again and again, students have shared stories of achieving greater balance, relaxation and self-awareness through tai chi. Many students, including those in their 80s and 90s, continue practicing tai chi for years.
“It’s the balance. They come for their balance. They’re eager,” Chinn said. “Most people who need it the most, appreciate it the most.”
He suggests older adults should begin tai chi before balance becomes an issue. Even novices, he said, can experience its benefits.
Although he’s given national tai chi workshops and has won medals at competitions on three continents (at both national and international levels), Chinn said even experienced tai chi practitioners like him continue to learn and grow.
“It’s an art,” he said. “There’s no end to this.”
Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at firstname.lastname@example.org.