Cars rushed up and down nearby Underwood Avenue.
Birds chirped incessantly. Bicycle wheels whirred and runners’ shoes pounded the pavement.
Nearby, a woman hosed off her home’s siding after planting flowers.
But Rita Otis’ calm voice projected over the chaos and neighborhood noise around her.
Through a series of neighborhood tai chi practices, Otis hopes she can help her neighbors take their minds off of stress and anxieties during the coronavirus outbreak.
For the past week, Otis has hosted the sessions in the large, grassy island where Sunset Trail meets Glenwood Road in her neighborhood northwest of Memorial Park.
Otis, 71, has been leading tai chi for about 20 years. The practice involves repetition of gentle movements for a form of movement meditation.
Otis practices tai chi daily on her own and wanted to open it up to her neighbors. It’s a chance for the already tight-knit neighborhood to connect and boost their health, Otis said.
The grassy island a few houses away from her home has been perfect to allow for appropriate social distancing.
“It’s a time you can relax and feel safe,” Otis said. “You can let go of other things and just listen to the birds and feel yourself on the earth. Feel yourself connected to other people.”
Marge and Jim Bresel were vaguely familiar with tai chi. A desire to get outside and get some exercise was enticing enough for the couple to give the practice a try.
“It’s a good distraction,” Marge Bresel said. She and her husband appreciate their neighbor’s offer.
Jim Bresel said it has been nice to leave the house and socialize with the neighbors — without getting too close, of course.
During a recent practice, Otis camped out at the narrow point of the island. Five neighbors, including the Bresels, fanned out at the wide base of the island, allowing plenty of space between them. One neighbor exercised more caution, practicing from her lawn across the street.
They listened to Otis’ cues, which sometimes included focusing on the chatter from the birds or watching the clouds float by. Other times, the instructions guided them through the physical motions of the meditation.
Otis and her class were unfazed by the neighbors who slowed on walks or drives to glance over at them. A garbage collector got in on the practice, too. As he hopped out of the driver’s seat, he waved his arms in and out before snapping a photo.
Going in, Margaret Sailors knew tai chi was a relaxing practice. And she hoped it would help her nervous system and health, especially in the middle of a pandemic.
“I can feel the difference,” she said. “My spirit is lifted.”
In addition to connecting with her neighbors, Sailors said the practice also has connected her with nature. The group has been fortunate to have pleasant weather during the sessions.
Patty Packard said she feels the nature connection.
She can really hear the birds and feel the breeze as she stands on the grassy space with a handful of neighbors. But more than that, it has helped her ease that feeling of isolation and melt away anxieties.
“It forces you to be present,” Packard said.
People need a boost right now, Otis said. Her 30- to 40-minute tai chi lessons, which happen daily at 4 p.m. when the weather cooperates, are open to any neighbors who meander over to the island — as long as they comply with social distancing guidelines.
“It definitely gives a boost to your spirits to be with other people,” Otis said, “even if it’s commiserating that we are all stuck and we are all stressed and we can’t help as much as we want.”
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