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NEXT L. A. | The Next Wave

Exercise Program Helps Senior Citizens Get on the Stick


The 30 men and women who gather outside the Westminster Senior Citizens Center each Thursday carry solid mahogany sticks, lightweight wooden dowels, even sheared-off pieces of plastic pipe.

With a simple "good morning," Dau Bac Mai moves to the front of the group and begins leading his pupils through a class in the "Longevity Stick," a 12-movement exercise regimen that he developed more than 20 years ago in his native Vietnam.

Longevity Stick uses techniques that bring the body and mind into balance, Mai said.

"I know about Oriental medicine, and all these movements help the muscles and get the blood to circulate better," he said, speaking through an interpreter, student Van H. Le. "The body and the mind have a connection."

Dressed in loose-fitting, rust-colored clothing and an Indiana Jones-style hat, the 76-year-old Mai slowly and deliberately moves through his exercises, which are designed to increase mobility and work all parts of the body.

Students keep their eyes on the master as they twist, lean and stretch their bodies. Holding their sticks in various positions, they move their limbs and torsos slowly and deliberately. An advanced student translates Mai's instructions into English on the precise movement required for each exercise, reminding the group to breathe in and breathe out rhythmically.

Mai, who immigrated to the United States in 1994, has been teaching Longevity Stick at the Westminster Senior Citizens Center for more than a year. He has added other locations, including the Garden Grove Senior Citizens Center and Stanton's St. Polycarp Catholic Church, since launching the program.

"It is my experience that I practice and I feel better," Mai said. "Before, I wasn't feeling well."

After suffering a stroke in a Vietnamese prison camp in 1972, Mai developed the 12-step exercise program in an effort to regain his mobility. He says he was once paralyzed on his right side but now shows no signs of having had a stroke.

The program is similar to tai chi, but uses a stick for balance. Any type of stick can be used as long as it is as tall as the user, Mai said. Some students hold solid wood sticks made in Vietnam, while others carry $3 wooden dowels from a lumber hard.

Martha Karam, a 74-year-old heart patient, said she felt "pretty good" after working through the exercises during her second class Thursday. Six months after open-heart surgery, Karam said, her doctor recommended she begin exercising and approved of the Longevity Stick program.

John McGregor, a 73-year-old sport fisherman, said Mai's 12 movements have helped heal several of his torn knee ligaments, helped him lose weight and improved the flexibility in his back.

"I don't think it's helped, I know it," McGregor said. "I am more flexible and I have better self-control. It does a lot for your mental and physical attitude."

Mai estimates that he leads about 200 people through Longevity Stick movements every week at a variety of locations in Westminster, Garden Grove, Huntington Beach and Stanton.

Betty Goyne, senior citizens center director and a gerontologist, said Mai's class has become extremely popular with Westminster senior citizens since it began in January 1995. It has been particularly helpful for arthritic adults, she said.

"Older adults need to do gentle exercise. The neat thing about this is that it's a stretching exercise and a very gentle exercise that he has developed," Goyne said.

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