Molly Zane flows gracefully into “White Snake Sticks Out Its Tongue” position as her classmates around her do the same.

She is one of seven students in a tai chi class on a rainy March morning at the Connor Center for Active Living in Dartmouth. The students, six older women and one older man, move mindfully following instructor Joe Rebelo’s example at the front of the class while counting the repetitions aloud in Mandarin – “yi, er, san, si” all the way up to “shi,” for the10th repetition.

A New Bedford native, Rebelo has been practicing martial arts for nearly 56 years and is a blackbelt in 36 styles and a grandmaster of four. Tai chi was not part of his early training as a youth, until one instructor began requiring students to learn it after experiencing a medical emergency.

“It was one of the best things he ever did in the world for me,” Rebelo says about the requirement.

Now Rebelo is passing on the knowledge, teaching at three local senior centers, including Dartmouth. Tai chi helps to circulate the chi, or lifeforce, throughout the body whether practitioners are standing still or moving, he said. It is especially good, he said, for those days when “one’s get-up-and-go has got up and went.”

Zane discovered tai chi years ago while living in California, observing older Asian women practicing the martial arts-based style in outdoor venues and parks. The style has become a popular low-impact exercise especially for older adults and Zane, a longtime Dartmouth resident, said she has been doing it for about two years now.

Asked why she sticks with it, she said, “Just for the sake of movement.”

This particular morning, Rebelo’s class begins with a series of slow movements and conscious breathing done while standing in one position, before moving into a more complex series of poses with memorable names like ‘Sun Rise, Sun Set,’ ‘Grasp the Swallow’s Tail,’ ‘Lion Playing with the Ball,’ and ‘Brushing the Horse’s Mane.’

The names represent the motion, Rebelo explains, guiding participants in visualizing a lion playing with a ball, for example, as they move their hands forward as if holding a beachball between them.

In another position, he gently adjusts a woman’s arm into a more natural place, explaining that following the natural flow of the body is important.

“It’s amazing the strength you can generate with certain natural alignment,” he tells the class.

The breath is as much a focus as the poses, Rebelo adds. “Learning how to control and regulate our breathing is important to our longevity and vitality,” he tells students.

Tai chi is popular among people of many ages and cultures, but is especially attractive to older adults, because it combines slow gentle movement with breath work and meditation to provide tangible health benefits.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institutes of Health describes it this way. Tai chi, they say, is “a practice that involves a series of slow gentle movements and physical postures, a meditative state of mind, and controlled breathing.”

On its website, the NCCIH details many benefits to the practice including improving balance for older adults and those with Parkinson’s Disease. It may also have a positive cognitive effect, NCCIH suggests, referencing a 2023 study of older adults split into three groups — stretching, doing tai chi, and practicing a cognitively-enhanced form of tai chi. The third group practicing the cognitive-physical form led to improvements in cognition, the study found.

Rebelo believes tai chi is good for all ages. He has taught the martial arts form to people using walkers, wheelchairs, and even bedridden, he said.

“Tai chi is for everyone,” he said. “We say, ‘You do what you can, as you can, when you can, and (even) if you can.’ That’s the key.”

Tai chi’s strength, he said, comes from a focus on the natural movement and alignment of the physical body. But there is also a meditative element and philosophy which Rebelo includes, calling out to the class as they move, “Remember the slower you go.”

He pauses to let students respond together, “The more you know.”

Another important mantra Rebelo prompts from the class, is ‘If your arm extends;” “Your knee bends,” they chant back.

Tai Chi classes are taught at the Fairhaven Council on Aging on Mondays from 11-noon; in Dartmouth on Tuesdays from 9-10 a.m.; and on Fridays from 10-11 a.m. at the Brooklawn Senior Center in New Bedford. Rebelo hopes to add more classes in the region soon.

Classes are taught in eight-week sessions for $30 per session. People can join midsession for a prorated amount. Call the senior center in your area for details.