Seniors & Aging

Arthritic woman found movement and hope through tai chi

Lee Willis teaches a tai chi class at the Whatcom Family YMCA  Tuesday Nov. 17, 2009 in Bellingham. Willis, who suffers with arthritis, says the class is for "anyone healthy or not."
Lee Willis teaches a tai chi class at the Whatcom Family YMCA Tuesday Nov. 17, 2009 in Bellingham. Willis, who suffers with arthritis, says the class is for "anyone healthy or not." THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Lee Willis teaches a tai chi class at Whatcom Family YMCA in Bellingham. Willis, who suffers from arthritis, says the class is for "anyone, healthy or not."

Name: Lee Willis.

Age: 64.

Spouse: Rick Hermann.

Residence: Bellingham, since 1987.

Work: A former flight attendant, she teaches the Tai Chi for Arthritis classes at the YMCA.

New mother, new struggles: "I had been diagnosed with rheumatory arthritis for a few years," she says. "I would have a flare-up once a year where I couldn't get out of bed for a week. But about five weeks after I had my son, Eli, I just hurt all the time. I couldn't pick my baby up out of the crib. I couldn't squeeze diaper pins."

Tai chi 101: "When I was living in Seattle in the '70s, I started taking tai chi classes. I did it for about five or six years. I went to tai chi camps on Orcas Island and took a lot of classes.

"It just opened up something in me ... that just resonated with me. I practiced on and off over the years."

Moving again: "In the late '90s, I met a friend taking classes in qigong (similar to tai chi) with Robert Bates, who teaches in Bellingham. Through the practice I was taught to adapt it if it hurts.

"My practice with qigong was side-by-side with the world of medicine. And I started having improvements."

Volunteer work: "I had a hip replacement in 2001 and started taking a new arthritis drug the same year. My son was in high school. I thought it was a good time to start volunteering, after all the help I received from the Arthritis Foundation.

"I enjoyed six years working on the foundation's help line. It was there I asked them if I could take a class on how to teach tai chi for arthritis."

Centered and calm: "Physically, tai chi is very strengthening. It really helps improve your balance. You learn to shift your weight consciously and become aware of your posture and breath. When your spine is lined up, you're not damaging your joints.

"And the practice is so calming. It carries out into the rest of your life. You don't get ruffled so easily."

Here comes the sun: "I teach the Sun style tai chi. It was modified by a doctor in Australia named Paul Lam. He had arthritis in his 20s and learned to do tai chi.

"It's modified with only 31 movements, and no deep knee bends. It's gentle and accessible, and very well-balanced. When I learned how to do this, I wanted to teach, so I would stick with it."

Healing and hope: "I can go for days not thinking of myself as a person with arthritis. Occasionally, I'll have little issues. But I use qigong, massage, and breathing techniques to get through them.

"Mostly, I'm just so grateful. The thread of this in my life started when I was in my 20s, when I was introduced to tai chi. Now, here comes back an old friend that can really help me now. Some part of me knew that maybe I was going to need this later."

Downsized, but not out: "We moved to a condo five years ago from the Sunnyland neighborhood. We had fruit trees and berries that we loved, but it was too much to keep up with.

"We've had a garden at the pea patch for the past four years. Some gardens there look like they're out of Sunset Magazine. Ours looks like a wild thing."

Practice, practice, practice: Willis practices tai chi or qigong every day, along with teaching three classes each week, as well as a new seated tai chi class starting at the YMCA this month.

"I've got a little group of people at the condo I practice with on Friday mornings," she says. "It started as a way to continue practicing with my students since I take the summer off. But it evolved into a weekly practice."

The good life: "We live next to Whatcom Falls Park, our family is Seattle, our son, who just graduated from college is in Seattle.

"Our life is really rich, even though we're both dealing with chronic illness (Willis' husband is diagnosed with Parkinson's disease). We take things a day at a time, since we're both aware that 30 to 40 years ago neither of us would have had the benefits of the advances in medicine we have today.

"And we don't know what's coming around the corner. So why worry about the future?"