Tai chi, the ‘moving meditation,’ provides plenty of health benefits
By J. Chambless
A tai chi class takes place in the holistic health studio at the Kennett Area YMCA, and the participants are all enthusiastic about this mindful exercise that dates back to the 16th century in China. (Photo by Steve Hoffman)
By Steven Hoffman
The students in Janet Louise’s tai chi class are making practiced, purposeful movements, their bodies flowing from one movement to the next in a balanced and controlled way. Janet leads the students during this part of the class, demonstrating the proper technique, but these students are well-practiced and understand the importance of precision.
They meet regularly for this class at the Kennett YMCA, and with each class they build on what they know about tai chi, the Chinese martial art that is growing in popularity. A few minutes later, the class ends and the dozen or so students head off in a dozen different directions. But they always carry with them what they’ve gained from the class.
Those who practice tai chi say that it brings many health benefits—it increases flexibility, relieves stress, and requires the entire body to move for an extended period of time. Tai chi improves circulation, and those who practice it regularly also learn the importance of focused breathing.
Several students talked about the physical and mental effort that is required during a class.
“The benefits are innumerable,” explains Cynthia Candelaria, a resident of West Chester., who has been practicing tai chi for more than six years, the last four at the Kennett Area YMCA. “It affects how you live, how you walk, how balanced you are. It can give you peace of mind. I feel really good after a class.”
Tai chi is practiced all over the world—and by people of all ages. There are ample health benefits and it can be a lifelong pursuit. Janet likes to call tai chi the “moving meditation.” It blends perfectly the physical, mental, and spiritual, all together, in one exercise.
“Tai chi has given me peace of mind,” Janet explained. “It has taken a lot of the hardness out of me. It has saved my life a few times.”
She started studying tai chi in 1977, and within a few years she was teaching it to others because one of her early instructors encouraged her to do so.
Early on, she studied the Yang 98 forms and the Yang 108 forms and sword forms. She benefited from a teacher who had a very traditional style. Modern tai chi has many styles and forms, and while they are all different they all offer their own unique benefits.
“Master Chao said that you practice tai chi for good health,” Janet said. “I accepted that it was good for me.”
In 1982, she met Ben Lo, who was a direct student of Theng Man Ching, who started learning the 37 form, which originated in Taiwan when it was created for the military. Theng Man Ching developed what has been called “short form,” in which 37 positions are counted, which is different from the well-known long form with 85 or 108 positions, depending on how they are counted.
Like anything else worth knowing, it can take a lot of time and patience to learn the forms. Janet said that it took her years to learn some of the longer forms.
One important lesson that she learned is that if she skipped just one day of tai chi, she could tell because there would be noticeable tightness. For that reason, Janet likes to practice tai chi regularly—she misses it when she doesn’t, and it has become an important part of her life.
“It’s really a daily practice for me,” she said.
Another important lesson to learn is that tai chi is not is an overnight cure for anything. While a person might see some small benefit from one tai chi class, just as any exercise can give a person a temporary boost, the real benefits occur over time. This is especially true when it comes to flexibility.
“It comes in layers,” Janet explained. “Tightness will be softened over time.”
Through the years, Janet has taught hundreds of people tai chi, including people at various skill levels.
She currently teaches classes at the Kennett Area YMCA each Monday and Wednesday.
“There’s probably about 15 people in each class,” she said, adding that she also has taught regularly in Newark.
Teaching has been a big part of Janet’s life. For 27 years, she taught English as a Second Language at the University of Delaware, and she also taught English and linguistics to college English teachers-in-training in China. She really enjoyed those experiences in international education. Her skills as a teacher certainly helped her as she worked with tai chi students through the years.
Despite all her success as a teacher, she did not set out to be one.
“I started out to change the world,” she said. She got very involved with the women’s movement, and she also did extensive work with the League of Women Voters.
The camaraderie that Janet has with the students—and that the students have with each other—is evident.
One of the students in the class is a retired doctor. Another is a lifelong martial artist who turned to tai chi about five years ago as a way to stay in shape with a low impact exercise. All the students are well-versed in tai chi and its benefits.
Despite the slow, graceful movements, tai chi is a workout of moderate intensity. The health benefits, combined with the fact that tai chi poses little threat of injury or damage, make tai chi one of the most accessible partial arts. This explains it’s growing popularity. As more people practice tai chi, they spread the word about how beneficial it can be. The students can see increased energy levels, improved blood pressure levels, more flexibility, and other benefits.
Antoinette Eickholt, one of the students in the class at the Kennett Area YMCA, said that people are always very interested to learn more about tai chi.
Janet said that one thing that she likes about it is that there is no end to the learning.
“Part of being a tai chi teacher is that we’re always refining our own body. By teaching, you learn a lot,” Janet explained. “Students are repeating back what we’ve been teaching. I’m constantly learning better ways to teach, learning about learning styles and how to move the bodies. It’s been wonderful. The students really know the forms.”
To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email firstname.lastname@example.org.