“Yield and overcome,
Bend and be straight.”
- Lao Tsu, in Tao Te Ching
In the whispers of morning mist that lay close to the ground, a silhouette figure danced a slow arabesque. Her arms and legs moved continuously, smoothly, like folds of satin ribbon. The woman completed her exercise, and spoke about her reasons for practicing Tai Chi Chuan.
“My teenagers were driving me nuts … and my work schedule was so loaded I needed the largest-sized day planner to track it,” explained computer consultant Sally Martin. “I felt depleted and needed a way to balance my life,” she said. “I found it with Tai Chi.”
Martin is one of many who need to balance more than just a checkbook. The ancient Chinese martial art of Tai Chi Chuan is widely appealing to people of all ages, health conditions, persuasions and professions. In Spokane, Tai Chi classes are in demand at community centers and schools, and also figure into treatment and wellness programs in assisted-living residences and counseling facilities.
Originally a family affair, Tai Chi Chuan developed into regional styles in China. The five practiced most commonly today are the Yang, Chen, Wu, Sun and Woo styles. Styles vary in the number and selection of stances performed end-on-end, and fall generally into long and short forms. Mastery of the forms can take years, and training is divided into progressive levels of study.
Tai Chi originally was practiced as a fighting form, emphasizing strength, balance,flexibility and speed. It has evolved into a soft, slow and gentle exercises with names like “Wind Rolls the Lotus Leaves,” “Carry Tiger to the Mountain,” and “Embrace the Moon.” Its fundamental theory of energy flow is also the basis for the Chinese medical system of diagnosis and treatment.
“Tai Chi is actually the grandmother of all martial arts,” said Pam Hunt, a respiratory therapist and instructor with the School of T’ai Chi Chuan. “The idea is that if you have control of your body slowly, then you’ll have the ability to move quickly when you need it.” She said Tai Chi is a “soft” martial art, and is not competitive, unlike its gone-Hollywood cousin, Kung Fu.
“It’s an art form and a continuous movement, like dance,” said Hunt. “It’s an investment in loss. You lose ego, lose concepts, and lose tension. And when you do that, you are open to the flow of energy inside you.” The word “chi” can mean “spirit,” “breath” or “ridgepole.”
Community Colleges of Spokane offers Tai Chi through the Seniors Program coordinated by the Institute for Extended Learning. “In 1994 we had a single class of 15 students in Tai Chi,” said Seniors Program manager Pat Freeman. “Now we have five classes offered every quarter.” Freeman said the classes are held at The Academy, and Corbin, South Hill and East Central Senior Centers. “Our seniors are interested in holistic living and exercise for better health,” she said.
A veteran of Corbin Senior Center classes, 76-year-old Shirley Wihlborg attributes her sense of well-being to Tai Chi. “I feel about 36,” she said. “It’s taught me the value of movement. This takes your muscles and moves them slowly, so you don’t have the stress on them you get with the jumping up and down of aerobics.
Nearly 25 percent of The Academy’s residents enjoy Tai Chi classes in their own home. Activity director Merrily Swaney brought in an instructor through the IEL Seniors Program. “Most of the residents taking this class are in their late 80s and early 90s,” said Swaney. “This class is great for their physical balance and coordination, and circulation and leg strength.” Recent studies by the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute for Nursing Research show that Tai Chi exercise is connected to a fall-reduction rate of 40 percent among 1,500 elderly participants in the project. One researcher remarked that Tai Chi teaches you not to fight a change of balance, but to move with it.
Tai Chi students also develop mutual support. “It brings about a sense of community for them,” said Swaney. “When people move here their friends are either dead or back where they left them,” she said. “This opens their minds to positive new experiences, and helps build a sense of community.” IEL’s Freeman notes the same camaraderie, and credits it with subsequent re-enrollments.
The spiritual benefits of Tai Chi are less obvious to observers, but very apparent to practitioners. Tai Chi is offered in the context of therapy at St. Joseph Family Center, where people come for services that include parenting workshops, anger management groups, spiritual direction and body therapy.
“We wanted to give services that address the whole person, and that are accessible to people who have had an unkind experience of touch,” said Sister Carmel Gregg, OSF, center director. “Tai Chi is gentle, self-directing and centering, so that a person could come home into their own body and have a sense of respect for their body and themselves. We are addressing the whole person with the healing arts.”
Joan Peden teaches the Tai Chi classes at St. Joseph’s. “There is a mystical quality to Tai Chi. We are working with a universal energy, and it’s in every place in us and out of us, just like the positive and negative in electricity,” said Peden. “When you are healthy you are at ease with the universal energy, and when you are not at ease you are at dis-ease - disease. It’s a balancing, and that applies when the emotions are out of sync as well as the physical.” Peden also has taught Tai Chi in the Credo and Focus programs for men and women religious at Gonzaga University.
“It’s important to get the body working for you and to release the emotions that are stuck in the body. When we are ready, your mind releases these things,” she said. “Then you can build the internal strength that gives you the strength to live and to cope, and that’s something that no one can take away from you.”
Professionally and athletically aggressive, architect Bob Mechels says that Tai Chi helps him relax. “Tai Chi had been on my personal ‘to do’ list for some time,” said Mechels. He said he was especially attracted to tapping into internal energy. “You can convert it into internal power,and eventually develop it where you can sense the power and energy of your opponent.”
At ALSC Architects, Mechels’ recent project load included the new Veterans Arena. For fun last summer, he competed in the Canadian Iron Man Triathlon, biking 112 miles, swimming 2.5 miles, and running 26.2 miles. His latest hobby is rock-climbing. “In my case, Tai Chi really helps me relax, to take my mind off work and connect internally. It’s a constant reminder that all you’re here to do is the best you can.”
Stresses of a different sort affect the Rev. Dennis Andersen, father of infant twins and pastor of Peace Lutheran Church in Otis Orchards. “With the demands of parish life, Tai Chi Chuan is one of the best ways to relax, and deal with stress,” said Andersen. “I see this as prayer in motion. It’s a centering, meditative practice that gives me a sense of the presence of God’s spirit,” he said. “For a comparison, you could say that sometimes you have to turn the TV down to hear the telephone. This helps me shut out thoughts and be aware of the presence of God.”
He finds the community of a class leads him to greater compassion in his work. “I believe that we all have the seeds of compassion, and love, and joy, and peace - but we are not always aware they are there,” Andersen said.
“We think about qualities outside of us, and wait for them to come in. But through centering, prayer and meditation we allow those seeds to grow. In Christian language we call those the fruits of the Holy Spirit.”
Andersen’s instructor Pam Hunt agrees. “All suffering is the same, and we develop empathy and recognition of each others’ suffering when we recognize our own and let go of it. The tension in our bodies is emotional, physical and mental hurt.
“Through Tai Chi,” says Hunt, “we become aware that each of us is connected to all of us.”
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