Tai Chi Practitioners Find Gentle Martial Art Promotes Healing

In this fast-paced world, it's easy to get caught up in exhilarating fitness routines like tae bo, Pilates or even Jazzercise and cardiovascular activities that increase your heart rate to match the rapid pace of the rat racers competing to get to the top.

Yet on an average Monday morning at the Armory Sports Center, a group meets every week in defiance of such a life outlook. They are exercising, but their dress varies from sweats to jeans. Some wear sneakers; some are barefoot. Here, Kenny Greene leads a free class in tai chi, a Chinese martial art that focuses on deep relaxation in the musculature as opposed to the application of muscle tension in hard martial arts styles such as kung fu.

Greene guides his students through a series of fluid movements known as forms, which move the joints of the entire body in sync. His instructions are guided meditations, invoking elements and energy in each move. The students, focusing on centering their minds and bodies, follow along, adjusting their poses according to directions such as fire, water and wave back. The bodies, a mix of longtime attendees and first-time arrivals, manage to move in unison; en masse, they resemble a human forest. Their arms move like branches to the soft breeze of Greene's voice.

"It looks like a beautiful dance, but it's so much more," said Mary Cruise, who began studying tai chi with Greene more than three years ago. After earning her second-degree black belt in tae kwon do, she became interested in studying tai chi, which is said to be at the foundation of many hard martial arts.

"Tae kwon do is hard on your joints," said Cruise, 42. "Tai chi is more of an internal art. It's slow, even non-impacting. It's amazing how in teaching you to be slow, it trains you to be fast."

Although tai chi is an ancient Chinese practice, only recently has mainstream Western culture been more accepting of it as a meditative and therapeutic exercise.

"Yoga led the way in, so tai chi doesn't seem as strange anymore," said Cruise, who after a year's practice began instructing tai chi herself. In the past year, she has taken to teaching it full time in private and group lessons. She has more than 60 students ranging in age from three to 96, all of whom, she says, benefit in some way from tai chi either in practice or by principle.

Sandy Matsuda, assistant professor of occupational therapy and occupational science at the University of Missouri-Columbia, says although yoga and tai chi are both meditative, tai chi takes on a more active form. It asks the body to coordinate its movement with its breath, a coordination of external movement with the internal.

"One of Lau-Tzu's sayings I like is that something too hard snaps. Something too soft folds," she said. "Regular tai chi practice teaches us to be responsive but not resistive to changes, both physical and mental. Practice helps us become more flexible, to yield and yet to flow like water around obstacles, maintaining our balance as we move."

The dynamics vary, and different principles emphasize different strengths. With a class of children, Cruise takes the students through animal poses and creates a more "play tai chi" practice with intermittent periods of frolicking.

"What they learn is to turn it off," she said. "It can be adapted for all levels."

With older participants, instructors--including Cruise, Greene and Matsuda--focus on physically therapeutic aspects of the forms.

"Most people don't realize it's a martial art," said Cruise. "But what happens is people get into it for its health and wellness benefits."

Larry Libbus, a student in Greene's class, has been practicing tai chi for three years. Libbus participates in more active sports, including track and field events such as the shot put, but took up tai chi when seeking a form of exercise that wasn't so vigorous.

A former high school football lineman, Libbus, 61, says he has definitely noticed a physical change since taking up the practice.

"My flexibility is a lot better," said Libbus, who recently retired from a desk job with the state's health department. He can't bend into a pretzel, but he notices it in little, everyday occurrences, such as stepping over things and reaching for high items.

Robin Remington, 68, also noticed physical improvements since taking up tai chi nearly four years ago. Before she began, Remington, suffering from a degenerative knee problem, could barely walk without assistance from a cane. A friend suggested she take up tai chi, saying "it would help her a lot." She began to feel improvement above and below her affected knee and now no longer requires assistance to stand or walk.

Although Remington's story sounds miraculous, Cruise says tai chi is not meant to be a cure-all for physical or emotional ailments.

"When you say the word 'alternative,' that's when people freak out," she said. "It's a complement to practices in Western medicine. It's about opening the joints of the body. Stuck energy is what's causing pain or disease. Disease--It's handled gently with tai chi."

Instead, Cruise adds, tai chi works to align the physical, spiritual and mental abilities that awaken "the healing potential in all of us." This expresses itself often in a stronger physical being and a more confident inner self. But the practice is a process, with boundless possibilities for improvement and achievement.

"Tai chi is not about the end," Cruise said. "It's that whole journey in the middle that you take through relaxation."

Reach Mary T. Nguyen at (573) 815-1704 or mtnguyen@tribmail.com.
Copyright (c) 2007, Columbia Daily Tribune, Mo.

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