Reflections on T’ai Chi
This is a blog about the practice of T’ai Chi and the applications in daily life.
This is a blog about the practice of T’ai Chi and the applications in daily life.
Many thanks to Qian Cai for sharing how T’ai Chi has helped her on and off the tennis court.
“Relax the body,” “bend the knees,” “turn the center,” Sensei Hiromi’s soft voice spoke to me in my head, as I tried to remind myself of a few fundamentals. No, I was not practicing T’ai Chi. I was on the tennis court, body lowered, eyes on the ball in my opponent’s tossing hand, and getting ready for the next point.
An enthusiastic tennis player, I tore my ACL a few years ago on the tennis court. The surgeon told me firmly that without an ACL replacement surgery, I would not be able to play tennis anymore. My physical therapist, on the other hand, suggested that I might be a “coper”– someone who could bypass the surgery by improving the leg muscle strength and balance to compensate for the lost function of a critical knee ligament.
I thought of trying T’ai Chi – a series of slow movements I deemed an “old person’s pastime.” As a young child growing up in China, I watched my grandpa do it every morning at the community park with many other seniors. But at that moment, T’ai Chi’s gentleness, or old-people-friendliness, beckoned to me and seemed to be exactly what I needed.
From the 14 steps, to 33, 66, and 100 steps, four long years passed. What a learning and enriching experience! Despite several internal struggles to give up at the beginning, I stuck with it and gradually noticed the mental and physical benefits, including the keen recognition that it was having an amazing, unexpected positive effect on my tennis game. I considered myself, in hindsight, truly fortunate to have stayed on long enough to experience first-hand the beauty and wisdom of T’ai Chi.
Because of T’ai Chi’s slow and highly deliberate movements and the emphasis on correct posture and stance, my quadriceps become stronger, which has helped to significantly control my knee movements and reduce knee stress. My posture is more aligned with the energy flows, known as “qi”, which, when the paths are cleared, nourish and soften the joints. My mind has become more relaxed, calm, and clear and less reactive.
In addition to these great health benefits, T’ai Chi taught me valuable tennis lessons I would never have imagined. As a direct result, not only am I able to continue to play tennis contrary to my surgeon’s prediction, I play better, rising from 3.5 to 4.0 last year in the United States Tennis Association ranking. I was thrilled to realize the similarity and connection between the two seemly opposite forms of exercise.
I love tennis, and I love T’ai Chi. I couldn’t be more grateful that through a knee injury, I discovered and developed a new passion, which in turn, quietly helped me to further another.
Frequent Problems with Aging
Effective Exercise Program for Seniors
Now that I’m a senior myself, I recently decided to practice what I’ve preached for years. In addition to aerobic and strengthening exercises, I’ve been doing T’ai Chi at Farmington Country Club with Hiromi Johnson, a very well-known and respected, internationally certified instructor from Charlottesville T’ai Chi Center. I recommend that others, especially seniors, do everything possible – INCLUDING IMPROVEMENT OF BALANCE – to prevent a hip fracture and its often dreadful consequences. To complete a fully effective exercise program, if possible and available, START T’AI CHI!
Michael Kovac, M.D.
Fellow, The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
The following is a poem written by Leonard Tuchyner. Many thanks to Leonard for sharing such a personal message.
T’ai Chi, an Abiding Teacher
Friends now for seven years,
introduced at a Chang Ming school,
you an ancient, sage teacher,
I a new naïve student,
antique by human standards.
Your slow steady ways were strange,
showing strength through balance and grace,
balance through timeless patience,
patience through flowing motion,
power through quiet presence.
You were a demanding teacher,
requiring my dedication,
rewarding me with inspiration,
a sense of internal focus,
a bounty of satisfaction.
Affliction pushed us apart.
My aortic valve was closing,
too much for my struggling heart
to breach across the narrowed gap.
Surgeons split my breast asunder,
restrained my heart from beating,
removed the ailing valve
and replaced it with bovine tissue.
I longed for you in my exile.
You were never far from mind.
I tried to recall your touch,
the wisdom in your lessons,
fearing you might be lost to me.
When I dared to stir my arms again,
free of fear for a ripping sternum,
I returned to your abiding school
and found that you were still there for me.
The skills and lessons you taught remained,
residing in my deepest reaches.
Too many times life draws me away
from your sacred place of learning,
but T’ai chi now resides in me
and holds out a hand of welcome.
There is much work to be done.
My path is a road without end.
Every step is a refinement,
every juncture an extension.
Even when I’m beyond repair,
Our partnership will still be there.
This union is deeper than
my corporeal existence,
which is simply a tool for learning.
The following is a poem written by Ferrell Mercer about the importance of in-person instruction in T’ai Chi. Thanks to Ferrell for sharing!
Body to Body
Why t’ai chi cannot be taught
by a video or a book.
– for Grandmaster Wang Fu-Lai
The Zen people say
that points at the moon
is not the moon.”
A picture of a feast
does not make your belly full,
just as the map
of my valley
is not the beauty
of my valley.
To know precisely
in each particular body
the right posture and movement
in each moment
a living teacher
who can over time
show the way.
Even the great Yang Lu Chan
who it is said
secretly watched the Chens
and learned enough t’ai chi
to be accepted as a student
when he was discovered
studied with a Chen master
to reach his own mastery.
no other way
Would you be
the first patient
of a surgeon
who learned the craft
solely by watching video?
consider yourself a surgeon
if you had learned your art thus?
Many thanks to Leonard Tuchyner for this wonderful article about his journey with T’ai Chi and Master Hiromi.
So there I was, seventy years old with no clue as to how I got to be a septuagenarian. What I did know was that my body must have been driven by a maniac. Miraculously, I was still standing and functioning, despite the fact that my medics wanted to replace my knees because I’d worn out all the cartilage.
I had survived life, but I didn’t do it without a lot of bumps in the road. I was legally blind, had a back that had been broken twice and a leg three times. I also earned a torn rotator cuff on the left side, a shoulder surgery on the other, and arthritis had found a welcoming home in my well-broken-in body.
Why am I going into this long laundry list of woe-is-meisms? It’s to show you how T’ai Chi has helped keep me healthy and fit despite this baggage of aches and complaints. It’s a highly adaptive physical and mental health resource that can work with and through almost any list of age-related groans that we have earned through the years. In fact, you can do variations of T’ai Chi on crutches or in a wheelchair.
For the past seventeen months Ed and I have been students of Master Hiromi Johnson, Director of the Charlottesville T’ai Chi Center. We are learning the Cheng Ming form of T’ai Chi Chuan which we started in our late sixties. In the following article, Ed as a former physician of Internal Medicine focuses on the health benefits of T’ai Chi as well as other aspects of our shared learning experience. My focus, with a background in Recreation and Park Management, is on my personal experience and how I feel T’ai Chi is beneficial to growing older.
At the beginning of each class we do a series of warmup exercises to loosen and stretch our muscles. This has improved our flexibility. Each member of the class sets their own limit on the extent of their warmup, so there should be no major pain or injuries. These exercises gently work the upper and lower back muscles, shoulders, hips, and thighs. This is followed by two sequences of specific T’ai Chi exercises which consist of movements that we perform throughout the formal 100-step T’ai Chi form. These exercises have more martial applications, but are mainly demonstrations for learning the proper form for positioning and moving our body when we start the formal T’ai Chi sequence.
Once we learned the gross movements and positions, we gradually started refining the details of each step. Only as we began the refinement process did we realize that a minimum error in our form would result in a major loss of strength and force. When we finish our warmups and the T’ai Chi Exercises, we do a T’ai Chi standing meditation. This helps to relax and calm our minds before we begin the 100-steps. The effects of this relaxing meditation persist for the rest of the day.
When we first see a new movement it is very confusing, and I think it will be impossible to remember, but by carefully observing our instructor as she moves gracefully through the process of each step, I learn the individual components of the movements.
The key to the enjoyment of T’ai Chi is to commit yourself to the process of concentrating on the information in class, taking it home, and practicing each day until your next class. At first we had only one movement to practice, so it didn’t take very long. As we learned a new movement, we would focus on it, and add it to the preceding one. The most important movements are the first fourteen because subsequent steps are built on these steps as you go further into the form. These fourteen movements improved my strength, especially in the legs and back. The increased strength and flexibility helped improve my balance.
Additional benefits we personally discovered as we progressed in T’ai Chi were weight loss, mental calming, better posture, increased flexibility and decreased pain from sites of prior injuries. Additional benefits suggested in The Harvard Medical School Guide to T’ai Chi written by Peter Wayne and Mark Fuerst include: fall prevention, lowered systolic and diastolic blood pressure, reduced back pain, reduced stress, improved psychological well-being, and improved breathing efficiency. There was also improvement in diabetes mellitus, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, coronary artery disease, stroke and cholesterol levels in some patients. Most of the patients who benefited were enrolled in a twelve week program of beginning T’ai Chi. These patients with regular daily practice completed the first fourteen steps of the program by the end of the twelve weeks.
First of all T’ai Chi with its gentle movements is a wonderful way to exercise, especially at our stage of life. We both have had previous injuries from other forms of exercise and T’ai Chi enables us to exercise without injuring our bodies. Although I am not a natural student of Tai Chi, and I lack flexibility, Hiromi encourages me to progress within my capabilities and my limitations. Her encouraging words, “Inch by inch many things are possible” point me in a positive direction.
Initially I was drawn to T’ai Chi to help reduce my stress levels and to experience its many health benefits. Now I practice daily for many other reasons. To me practicing the Cheng Ming style with its various nuances and subtleties is like learning to solve a moving puzzle. My brain seems to want to try to fit the pieces together. This is a surprise to me because focusing is not a natural habit of mine. .
I am learning new forms, repeating some forms, learning variations of forms, and continually learning to place the forms in a sequence of moves. All of this challenges my ability to not only learn but to remember. My brain gets a good workout in addition to my body. I also appreciate that Tai Chi helps me to become more spatially aware of my body when I place my feet, knees, hands, elbows, shoulders, and hips in various positions. This is important for many reasons including learning how to keep a better sense of balance as I travel through my daily activities.
The principles of T’ai Chi such as alignment, harmony, awareness, intention, relaxation, centering, the integration of opposites, and living in the present moment all appeal to me. In addition to our forms, each of our warm up exercises has health benefits as well. My instruction in how to break down complicated tasks into manageable steps, how to persevere when I struggle with a form or forms (in my case this is often!), how to become more patient, and how to learn to just “Be with what is” (Hiromi’s sage advice) can carry over to my daily life. The wide variety of learning opportunities through classes, lessons and workshops is another motivating factor.
T’ai Chi has introduced me to many wonderful kind, positive, and encouraging people. Practicing T’ai Chi with my husband Ed has given me an opportunity to share something with him that we enjoy so much. Having three young grandchildren, and feeling I am doing something that will help me engage with them in an active way, is priceless. Finally, the joy of practicing T’ai Chi is very important to me. I cannot express it well in words, but there are times something opens inside me when I practice T’ai Chi creating a space for possibilities. At my age I am well aware of my limitations, and it is such a good feeling when I become aware of these possibilities.
Ed and I appreciate our opportunity to learn T’ai Chi from our teachers who have encouraged us each step of the way, and we especially want to express our deep gratitude to Master Hiromi Johnson and Grand Master Wang Fu-Lai.
Thanks to Leonard Tuchyner for this wonderful poem.
I stand in tai chi stillness –
alert – relaxed- ready.
Arms raise – chi awakens –
shivers through legs and spine –
Earth ascends to Heaven.
Tai chi dances with circles.
Quickened fingers explore.
Searching arms, like feathered wings,
softly stroke through trilling air –
chi probing feeling chi.
Water flowing, moving slowly –
gentle sliding gliding ripples.
Water always finds its way,
cannot be stopped nor long contained.
To master water learn to float.
Fire, air, earth and water –
allied in flawless balance.
World twirls, pulls, challenges –
plays together in our story.
I rest in sublime harmony.
T’ai chi as a tool for healthy aging
by Ferrell Mercer
Born in 1952, I am at the tail end of the Baby Boom. However, I am old enough to remember “Never trust anyone over 30.” We could not imagine ever being thirty years old much less retirement age. For many of us the words of my late friend Jim Kellogg ring true. He said “If I had known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”
As I have gotten older it has become more and more important to me to be and stay healthy. The principle tool I have found to do that is the Chinese art of t’ai chi chuan. Below I will describe Continue reading
Thanks to the Mary Williams Senior Center for this great video on Hiromi’s work with the people there!
Hiromi T’ai Chi has been featured in an article in the C-Ville by Giles Morris.
The following are Megan Sharp’s reflections about the Taiwan trip.
I don’t think that I have ever been more nervous about a trip in my life. For days before we left I could hardly think about anything else. I couldn’t believe that I was going to a country where I would only know how to say “yes” and “thank you” and could not read anything. What I had not factored in is that Hiromi can speak and read some Chinese, and she would help us even when we were not with her.
She sent an email before John Graysar and I headed out to tell us exactly how to catch the bus to the See You Hotel in Taipei once we arrived in Taiwan. Before that email we had all but decided to take a cab. The bus ride went without a hitch. Despite the driver not speaking any English, we managed to find our hotel. A very nice man who had grown up in Taipei walked us to the hotel. He met his mother who was waiting to pick him up, and explained that he was walking us to the See You Hotel and would be right back. This was one of many very kind and generous Taiwanese people we would encounter on our journey. Continue reading
The following are John Graysar’s reflections on the Taiwan trip.
I am so glad that I was able to be part of the group T’ai Chi team. It really was a very group oriented project, from beginning to end. I started to feel a more group challenge than an individual one right from the start. I would like to do my best to convey that feeling in my recap of the competition.
Back in June, after we established some of the basic things – position, timing, etc., the next big hurdle was getting 5 people together so we could do a group practice (just like what we would do in the competition). Well, here goes the first thread of my individual thinking, and I was not quite right in my assuming it would be easy. More times than not we would get together in an incomplete set. So, we would do the best in the circumstances and practice one or two or three people short.
Another item we had to address was establishing how we were going to do different moves and practicing these together, gently critiquing ourselves Continue reading
The following comments are Joe Sebastian’s reflections on the Taiwan trip.
Our trip to Taiwan was very enjoyable as well as enlightening. Taiwan is a surprisingly contemporary country with modern cities and lush green countryside. When we first arrived we were greeted by friendly people and an abundance of wonderful bakeries and enough coffee shops to make me feel quite comfortable. Motor Scooters seemed to be a major mode of transportation. They were everywhere, weaving in and out of cars on the roads and people on the sidewalks.
One of my favorite parts of the trip was practicing with our team in the mornings before the tournament. We met at a local park at 6AM each morning, and also again in the afternoon on the Hotels Ping Pong or Squash Court. It was nice to meet the other teams from around the world as they arrived at the hotel. It was interesting to watch the other teams as they practiced on their own and competed in the tournament. Each school’s forms are slightly different. Continue reading
Grandmaster Wang Fu-Lai graciously offered to be videotaped answering several of the most common questions from students. You can see a translation of his answers below.
Leonard Tuchyner describes how he found t’ai chi and some of his favorite benefits studying with Hiromi Sensei.
My name is Leonard. I’m seventy-one years old. I’m a beginner, having studied with Hiromi for one-and-one-half years. There are a few facts that you should know about me. I’m legally blind, and have been so for many years. My condition, called Stargardt disease, is a very slow developing one which started in childhood. So I’ve had a lifetime to adapt to this condition.
I started training in the martial arts at about thirty, cycling through several different styles, never having a teacher who I would consider a master, or having direct access to one. I hated kata (choreographed movements), and was only really interested in sparring. I was reasonably effective, relying on peripheral vision to block and strike. I also had a good sense of fighting distances with my opponent. Continue reading
John G., a second-year student at Hiromi T’ai Chi, explains some of the most meaningful changes that he has experienced studying T’ai Chi and Ch’i Kung.
I really want to write a story that is filled with good things from beginning to end, but that would not be completely accurate. Mine starts with great difficulty. My battles with chronic back pain and depression were overwhelming.
I was very lucky to “catch” the advice of someone near to me who suggested that I give T’ai Chi a try. So I began, and it was quite difficult at first. I felt self-conscious, worrying about what other people were thinking and I remember many times thinking, “I just can’t”.
Thankfully, I ignored these thoughts, and they slowly started to happen less frequently. Something strange started to happen. I started to step out of the pain I was in Continue reading
Kath Weston, a two-year student at Hiromi T’ai Chi, answers some questions about her practice and experience with the school.
1. How did you begin doing T’ai Chi?
I used to watch people doing T’ai Chi in the park back when I was a graduate student living in San Francisco. The power and beauty of the practice intrigued me, so when I found out that a local YMCA was offering a class, I decided to try it. I loved it, but I didn’t pursue it at the time because I moved to another city. After that I focused on learning Qigong, a sort of moving meditation that works with the breath, which Continue reading
by Elizabeth Mastropierro
T’ai Chi and Chi Kung have truly been blessings to my life. I began practicing both while going to school for acupuncture and Chinese medicine over 10 years ago. They were both required courses, and I looked forward to learning them. We started with T’ai Chi the first semester. The class was at 7:30 a.m. 3 days a week, before a full day of intense classes. Many of my classmates grumbled at having to start class so early in the morning, but I always looked forward to it. I felt it helped oil the works of my brain and the rest of my body to get ready Continue reading
John McCullough, a student of Hiromi Sensei’s since 2008, talks about his experience with T’ai Chi and some of the benefits he has gained.