Posts Tagged ‘t’ai chi chuan’

Photo: Jonathan Wiggs /Globe Staff
Lauren Mayhew was my Essentrics teacher for a year. Here she is leading a class at the Steinberg Wellness Center for Mind and Body. Despite the photo, Essentrics doesn’t have students hold positions.

I was never one for doing exercise for exercise’s sake, but a couple decades ago, my doctor friend Anna insisted I take up something. I’m so glad she did.

I knew that in order to do any exercise regularly, it would have to be something I really enjoyed, so I started walking every day. I don’t walk fast, but I keep the joints moving, and I learned that any sort of walking fulfills that Holy Grail called “weight-bearing activity.” I also love the time to think, and I like taking pictures on my walk.

In addition to walking, I take two exercise classes. I’ve been taking tai chi chuan at Zhen Ren Chuan for more than six years. I like taking tai chi chuan at a martial arts studio because the moves are more clear and understandable than at another place I tried. They are clear because the martial arts people like to tell you the self-defense origins of the moves.

Tai chi chuan is great for balance and moving your body in a seamless way so you don’t stress the joints as you might do when holding a yoga position.

Moving in a seamless way is also the goal of a class I’ve been taking for two years called Essentrics. Essentrics was developed by a former ballerina and aims to strengthen and stretch all the muscles in every session, with beneficial attention to often neglected hands and feet.

Although the tai chi class includes many young people who are also studying martial arts, my midday Essentrics class has mostly retired people, many of whom have had injuries of one kind or another.

What do you do for exercise? Do you take any classes? As a child I took a lot of ballet classes, and ever since then, I’ve had the idea that you make friends in classes. Do you find it works that way with grown-ups? Since starting exercise lessons again as an adult, I find that most grownups keep their heads down and avoid eye contact. I can’t figure out why that is.

Here’s a Boston Globe article that explains how Essentrics helps improve posture. Lauren Mayhew, one of my teachers, is featured in the story.

Photo: Zhen Ren Chuan
The Zhen Ren Chuan website highlights its community garden: “Our families learn horticulture as well as Martial Arts.” Students and teachers keep the school’s corner of the business district neat as a pin.


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As the lowest of the “higher belts,” I’m exhibit A demonstrating that anyone can learn tai chi chuan.

It was really hard getting started. I couldn’t relate the moves to anything I knew before: not ballet, modern dance, yoga, ballroom dancing, folk dance … .

Then I learned that this kind of movement relates to nature. We practice moves called White Crane Spreads Wings and Ocean Breathing. We breathe like a tortoise taking a dive, we float our arms like a butterfly, and from a crouch postion, we rise like a phoenix. Now I get it.

For someone who nearly every year discovers that the lower back or a knee or the neck is far enough gone to require physical therapy, tai chi chuan has been a big help. It’s also great for exercising all your muscles and for balance. It’s constantly flowing.

Longevity in the class pays. If you just stick with it, eventually you can do some of the routines moderately OK, and you get to be referred to as a “higher belt” in front of brand-new students. Which is nice, even though you know it won’t last.

Photo: Zhen Ren Chuan

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In the UK, retirees are taking up ballet.

Emma Ailes writes for BBC Scotland, “In a locker room at Scottish Ballet, a group of dancers are lacing up their ballet shoes. Only one thing marks them out from the other dancers here. These dancers are all in their 60s and 70s.

“Today, they are rehearsing ‘Swan Lake.’

“Among them is Alicia Steele. She danced when she was young. Now, nearly 80, she’s back.

” ‘I went to keep-fit classes, but I found them a bit boring,’ she says. ‘And I love the music with the piano. I just love it and it makes you feel a bit young again. It doesn’t make you look young, but it makes you feel young inside.’

“There’s been a 70% jump in the number of adult dancers signing up for classes in recent years, according to the Royal Academy of Dance. Some, like Alicia, danced when they were young. Others are complete beginners.

“Their oldest ballerina is 102.” More.

I took ballet both as a child and as an adult. But for now, I am sticking with tai chi chuan. Today the teacher had me learning complicated new moves with the advanced students. “You deserve it,” he said to me.

I’m not sure how to take that.

Photo: BBC Scotland

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A 91-year-old Hindu gentleman has joined the tai chi chuan class I take Saturday mornings. His wife brings him a little after we have started, and he walks slowly between the wall of mirrors and the line of practicing students to sit in a folding metal chair, where the teacher explains the upper-body part of the exercises so he can join in. Age has not kept him from that.

After today’s class, I was driving home and heard Susan Stamberg interview Marian McPartland, 94, here, on National Public Radio. A fantastic jazz pianist, McPartland recorded her last Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz show only two years ago — after 33 years — but continues as artistic director. She is also the subject of a documentary called In Good Time that highlights the day in August 1958 when she was part of a famous photo of jazz greats in Harlem, below.

Speaking of nonagenarians, folksinger and activist Pete Seeger, 93, showed up on Colbert recently. At first I thought he was not answering a question and was wandering, but it soon became clear he was unfurling a story in his own way and that it would end precisely on point.

Seeger still splits logs to heat his house with wood. And his banjo playing hasn’t aged a bit.

Photograph: Art Kane/Art Kane Archives

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Back when my sister was teaching tai chi and before she decided to go to medical school, I was skeptical of Eastern health practices.

I should have taken lessons then, but I’ve learned the error of my ways and am more open to trying new things. I told John I’d been trying to find a weekend tai chi class that might be good for back pain.

Last week, he called about a sign he saw in Arlington:  Zhen Ren Chuan, a martial arts studio, had begun to offer tai chi.

Saturday I went.

Tai chi is not as easy as I thought watching ladies in San Francisco and Boston parks. So many things to think about at once! In that sense alone it is a great way to clear your mind of everything else. I will go again. It wasn’t quite like this video, as it was taught by an American who kept it very simple for a beginner, but I liked it.

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