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What Happens in Tai Chi Class

Tai chi movements are full of natural symbolism - "Wind Rolls with Lotus Leaves," "Brush Dust Against the Wind," and "White Crane Spreads Wings."

Yet the application of these moves is very practical: "Folks with arthritis in the knees tend to not bend their knees very much when they walk, so they tend to have a stiffer gait. Some tai chi exercise work to increase the knee flexibility," says Morrill.

For example, in the movement "Wave Hands Like Clouds," the focus is on the hands, which seem to drift like clouds in the air. But as the hands wave, the rest of the body is in continual slow motion, Morrill explains. The hips are driving the body motion -- as one leg bends, the other stretches, then the motion switches to the other side of the body. The arms rotate at the shoulder to strengthen shoulder muscles, which encourages the arms to stretch out fully. As weight is shifted, the body is slightly turned to produce flexibility in the waist and strength and flexibility in side muscles.

This movement may last only two minutes or so; during the hour-long class, participants will complete at least 20 different sets of movements, says Morrill.

Someone with arthritis should not try learning tai chi from a video or DVD, she adds. A class setting, with qualified instructor who has worked with people with arthritis, is essential. "If someone has severe arthritis in the left knee, they may not be able to do moves like someone who has a light case of arthritis. It's the instructor's job to modify movement to make it as safe and painless as possible for each student ... to select moves that are most appropriate."

Also, there's the camaraderie that comes from a class, Morrill tells WebMD. "People with arthritis tend to not get out much, but tai chi classes let them realize there are others in the same situation, so friendships develop, people support each other, they find other people they can share skills with. One might do the grocery shopping because the arthritis in her legs isn't too bad - and her friend does the cooking."

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