“Little toe, big toe, side-to-side,” Tai Chi instructor Amy Jolman tells students at the Spectrum Health West Pavilion on a recent Thursday evening.

“If you get lost, just come in whenever you are ready, at your own pace,” Jolman says.

There’s nothing stressful about this class, physically or emotionally. Jolman doesn’t want there to be. Dealing with arthritis on a daily basis is stressful enough.

Jolman, a Senior Neighbors instructor, strives to make the “Tai Chi for Arthritis” class fun. And gentle. All the movements are upright and designed to help arthritis patients. Nothing is strenuous. Silly sometimes, but not strenuous.

Jenison resident Pat Hornbeck started the class just a few weeks ago. She’s already laughing it up with Jolman.

“I don’t want to confuse you, Pat,” Jolman says as she introduces a complicated new technique to her rookie student.

“It’s too late,” Hornbeck says, laughing.

Hornbeck says she loves the camaraderie of the class and what it’s doing for her health.

“I have a few creaky joints, otherwise I’m in good health,” the 88-year-old said.

She volunteers for AARP, the Grand Rapids Symphony, Grand Rapids Civic Theater and her church, walks during the summer and this Labor Day plans to participate in her 27th annual Mackinac Bridge walk. But Hornbeck was looking for some beneficial winter and spring exercise.

“I probably had balance issues more than anything else,” she said. “I’m not as agile as I once was. I feel this has helped my balance a lot.”

Hornbeck doesn’t have much experience with martial arts, but she’s loving Tai Chi.

“It’s more complex than it looks,” she said. “It has to do with your breathing. I really have to concentrate. I carry my stress in my shoulders and this is helpful. I absolutely recommend it, and partly because they’re nice people to be with.”

Adding balance to life

Outside the large windows of the upstairs conference room, rush hour traffic moves frantically on Wilson Avenue and the exit ramp from M-6.

Inside, soothing new age instrumental music plays as Jolman stands at the front of the room, leading the group in graceful gestures with their arms and feet.

To the casual observer, Tai Chi looks like body poetry set to music.

“Brush knee to the right,” Jolman says as the students follow her moves. “Now from here we’re going to take a step back, you switch those hands so that your elbow and your palm, those energy points are there, then take a step back right, that’s where you’re going to bring your right palm and your left fingertips together.”

Confusing? Yes, but the students persevere.

Grandville, Michigan, resident Dave Valko studied karate for 11 years.

“I had to give it up because of arthritis,” said Valko who has had two knee surgeries and a shoulder surgery, with a hand operation on the horizon.

He’s able to handle Tai Chi. In fact, it helps him.

Looking straight ahead with a calm but intense gaze, Valko follows his instructor’s moves, slowly, gracefully, deliberately.

“With these movements it’s a lot slower than karate,” Valko said. “It helps with balance. It makes you think. Even though the movements are slow, you’re using muscles you wouldn’t normally use. When I’m done, I feel like I’ve had a workout even though it doesn’t look like a workout.”

Valko said he’s noticed more range of motion in his neck and shoulders.

And perhaps more importantly, less pain.

Valko said he, like many others with arthritis, sometimes fear moving because of the excruciating pain it brings.

Moving with purpose

“This is designed specifically for arthritis so the movements are not going to hurt you,” he said. “I think it’s worthwhile even for people who don’t have arthritis. It helps with balance.”

Valko’s wife, Judy, said there’s more than movement to the class.

“It teaches you to focus,” Judy said. “When you focus, you’re closing your mind to other things.”

Jolman talks of energy points, but stresses that students don’t have to believe in that kind of thing to benefit from the class.

“Even if you don’t believe in that stuff, it’s a good reminder of where to put your hands,” Jolman said. “There’s a whole lot more to Tai Chi than what you’ve seen here. I’m still learning.”

Jolman said she’s seen major changes in her students since September.

“I’ve seen a lot of change, especially in their balance,” said Jolman, who has been teaching fitness classes for two decades. “There’s definitely an increase in their balance and their ability to stand longer. Stamina is better.”

The class used to take breaks. Now, when Jolman asks if they want to take a break, class members say they want to keep going.

“I’m really seeing the health benefits,” Jolman said. “We have a 92-year-old woman in our class. This is also a mental thing. You have to remember 20 forms in sequence. When she first came in she said she’d never remember without watching.”

Now, the student is doing the forms on her own.

“Not only is it good for your body, it’s good for your mind,” Jolman said.

Julie Lake, director of the Senior Neighbors program, said her group’s partnership with Spectrum Health is helping many.

“We were looking for partners to work with us in offering this program,” Lake said. “It just started this past September and this is the first millage-funded Tai Chi program in Kent County. It’s also special to us because it’s our first evening program, which allows us to meet the needs of older adults who may still be working during the day.”