On a recent Monday morning, nine seniors at Florence Bain Senior Center in Columbia worked up a sweat doing an exercise movement known as "white-crane-spread-its-wings."
The exercise, which resembles the long strides and wing movements of a crane, is one of many body motions that Xiao Fang Xu Crawley is teaching in a class on tai chi, an ancient Chinese art of movement.
At the recent class, the tinkling sounds of Chinese instruments from a nearby tape deck accompanied the students as they concentrated on various postures.
"Breathe in, breathe out," chanted Mrs. Crawley, as the arms of those in the class reached slowly upward and then down again.
As students repeated their teacher's movements, one of them, Alice Booth, sat and rested periodically.
The 79-year-old Highland resident, who has been in Mrs. Crawley's class since it started in September, has undergone chemotherapy treatments.
"Tai chi is very relaxing and it really helps my balance," she said.
The art of tai chi was developed in ancient China as a system of self-defense and an aid to meditation. Its postures and exercises are characterized by slow, relaxed circular movements.
Mrs. Crawley, a 48-year-old Owen Brown resident who also teaches ballet at the Central Maryland School of Ballet in Laurel, demonstrated tai chi to a group of seniors at Florence Bain center in the fall fall.
After that demonstration, about 62 people signed up for the first scheduled class, which was sponsored by the county's Department of Recreation and Parks.
"Everybody can do tai chi whether they are strong or weak," Mrs. Crawley said. "Tai chi is very, very relaxed, but you can still sweat, even though it looks easy."
Mrs. Crawley, a former professional dancer from Shanghai, China, teaches two classes, Level I and Level II, for those ages 60 and up. A third class, for beginners, is taught Thursday evenings at the center for those ages 18 to 59.
The six-week classes, sponsored by the county's Department of Recreation and Parks, cost $15 for seniors, ages 60 and up.
"I am really surprised to have all Americans in my classes," said Mrs. Crawley, who taught tai chi to "mostly Asian people" in Los Angeles where she lived for six years until her move to Columbia last year.
After noticing that some older students were dropping out of her Los Angeles class because of the vigorous nature of the movements she had been teaching, Mrs. Crawley decided to research alternative methods during a month-long visit to China.
"Everybody in China does tai chi," said Mrs. Crawley. She said that parks in China often are crowded at 5:30 a.m. with people, many of them elderly, who practice tai chi every day, summer or winter.
Mrs. Crawley settled on an abbreviated series of exercises that she has tailored to meet the needs of older students. She encourages deep breathing, stretching and relaxation.
Looking particularly fit as he practiced each move was Dr. Arsenio Santos, 64, a retired physician and Ellicott City resident who has been taking the class for one month.
"I am convinced that the future of medicine is in the direction of alternative medicine," said Dr. Santos, who also is interested in meditation and yoga.
Aline Feldman, a 66-year-old Columbia resident, has taken Mrs. Crawley's classes since they began.
"The hardest thing is to go slow, since we Americans are used to a faster-the-better approach," she said. "It does, however, give you energy as well as relaxation."
The slow movements also were difficult for Lorrie Goodman, 74, a Columbia resident who has been taking the tai chi class for two months.
But following the discipline pays off, she said.
"The breathing is wonderful. Your chest expands and you bend your knees, which increases flexibility," she said.
Mrs. Crawley emphasized that if students continue the tai chi movements daily, rather than once a week in her class, they will reap many benefits.
"You will feel refreshed and you will reduce stress," she said. "The movements are good for your joints, organs and circulation. If your back hurts, you need tai chi, and if you can't sleep, there's even a form of tai chi that encourages sleeping."
The next series of tai chi classes is expected to start in the fall. Further information is available by calling Margaret D. Smith or Carol Lancaster at the Department of Recreation and Parks at 313-7311.