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Online tai chi class helps Aroostook’s elderly connect, exercise in time of social isolation

HOULTON, Maine — When MaryAlice Mowry moved to Patten in 2019, she had been eager to find a tai chi class to join, like the ones she had been attending prior to her move. 

“Then the pandemic hit,” said Mowry. “All of a sudden, I now had access to tai chi online.”

Healthy Living for ME, together with the Aroostook Agency on Aging, have put together an online tai chi class, held over the video app Zoom, that is specifically designed to counter arthritis and promote fall prevention. Though the class was made with seniors in mind, it is free and open to anyone over 18. 

The classes were intended to be held in person, but social distancing practices put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic have caused plans to shift. 

“The first class that we were going to offer was scheduled to start the day after we were all sent home because of COVID-19,” Jane Hanson, a regional network manager of Healthy Living for ME, said. “But we eventually found out we were able to offer it online.”

Tai chi, an internal martial art which originated in China, has a long and storied history. It is based on the philosophical concepts of yin and yang, focusing on breathing and movements to bring forth an inner balance between these two elements. 

But more modern scientific studies have shown that practicing tai chi can be very beneficial, particularly for seniors, helping to achieve balance and flexibility in old age, as well as prevent arthritis. 

The local classes are taught by several instructors, including Holli Nicknair of Houlton, who received a certification to teach tai chi from the Dr. Paul Lam Tai Chi for Health Institute, a global organization based in Australia which offers online instruction. Nicknair had planned to instruct at Houlton Regional Hospital, but the impact from COVID-19 has her teaching online instead. 

“We never have more than 10 in a class so that we can make sure everybody gets attention,” Nicknair said. “And the cool part about it being online is now it’s not just people from Houlton, but it’s people all over The County.”

Participants like Mowry and Pat Caspersen of Caribou, who is starting to do tai chi again for the first time in many years, said they find the class enjoyable and a great way to exercise while stuck at home. 

“It’s slow, it’s relaxing, there’s no pressure,” Caspersen said. “It’s wonderful that they can offer this to us, and we don’t have to leave the home.”

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