About a dozen people are moving their arms and legs to the sound of silence. Only the soft voice of their instructor, Debbie Nemeth, occasionally breaks in.
"If you can't kick higher, just do a small kick," she says, demonstrating. "The most important thing right now is your balance."
Nemeth, 53, is a certified tai chi instructor who knows about regaining balance and health. Five years ago, she spent much of her days in bed or a recliner, barely able to move without a walker. Since her 40s, she had been diagnosed with asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic migraines, chronic back and neck pain, anxiety and depression. By 2006 she had to retire. A physician told her she'd likely need a wheelchair.
Desperate for help, Nemeth remembered an article on Taoist tai chi she had put aside years earlier. Now was the time to look into it. She contacted the Taoist Tai Chi Society in 2008 and signed up.
Though tai chi is a martial art, to the uninitiated it looks like a graceful, synchronized dance.
The Taoist form of tai chi originated with monks in ancient China and is taught worldwide. It is characterized by 108 moves that stretch and train all parts of the body. Practitioners feel a resistance similar to using weights, though they use only their own bodies.
The sequence, often called a moving meditation, takes about 15 to 20 minutes to complete. The practice is easy on the knees and hips, and eases psychological stress, too.
The gentle nature of the practice makes it particularly well-suited to people with physical limitations, particularly older folks like Nemeth's students. But young athletes in top shape also are tai chi enthusiasts.
Results are gradual, Nemeth said, but impressive.
"After only three months, I noticed changes in my mobility," she said. "I was able to go from my walker to a cane and was very excited."
Taking up to three 90-minute classes a week, Nemeth found that her pain and other symptoms improved. She even stopped most of her asthma medications.
"Tai chi has helped me handle everything better," she said. "It has been phenomenal."
Several women in Nemeth's class at the senior activity center shared similar stories. Clearwater resident Marlene Sherman, 70, enrolled three years ago.
"I was dealing with depression, bad arthritis and issues with balance," she said.
"I've noticed I am less depressed, more flexible and just generally feel better."
Doris Thomas, 72, of Dunedin has been attending Nemeth's class for seven months.
"I still have (balance) problems," she said, "but it is definitely improving."
Nemeth's pain-management specialist, Dr. Lynne Carr Columbus, says her patient has come far.
"I have seen a definite improvement in Debbie's overall functionality since she has incorporated tai chi into her pain-management program," said Columbus. "She also exhibits much less anxiety."
A growing body of medical research has found that tai chi, in conjunction with traditional treatment, improves balance and quality of life.
A small 2006 study at Stanford University found that older tai chi students "showed improvement in both lower-body and upper-body strength."
Tufts University researchers in 2008 found that an hour of tai chi twice a week for 12 weeks reduced pain and improved mood and physical functioning in people with knee osteoarthritis better than standard stretching exercises. A small group of Parkinson's patients improved their balance, walking ability and overall well-being after 20 tai chi sessions, a study at Washington University found.
Similar small studies worldwide have linked tai chi with better bone density and heart health.
Nemeth says tai chi has taught her that she can take charge of her own health. Her next project is her diet. "Take little baby steps," she tells her class.
"Five years ago I came in here on a walker and couldn't do any of it, but here I am today."
Elaine Markowitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service www.scrippsnews.com
Photo: SH13E154TAICHI May 20, 2013 -- Debbie Nemeth teaches a tai chi class in Dunedin, Fla. (SHNS photo by Jim Damaske / Tampa Bay Times)