Practitioners: Tai chi can fight stress, correct movement and improve health | VailDaily.com

Practitioners: Tai chi can fight stress, correct movement and improve health

Melanie Wong
mwong@vaildaily.com

Sometimes, centuries-old practices can have modern-day benefits.

A room full of tai chi practitioners at the Avon Recreation Center recently discovered this concept, and they'll be quick to tell you that the ancient Chinese martial art affects their everyday lives. Some say it combats stress, while others say it has banished chronic pain or that the practice helps avoid injury.

Tai chi is a type of martial art that is usually practiced in slow, deliberate movements with a focus on the mind-body connection. When practiced quickly, it resembles the more familiar forms of self-defense martial arts, but when practiced slowly, it looks like a flowing, moving meditation practice, with a focus on breathing and balance.

"Tai chi creates mental awareness of how you move and why you move the way you do. It has elements of meditation and stretching," said Terrill Samura, who has taught tai chi in the area for more than a decade.

He explained that there are two kinds of martial arts. External martial arts, such as karate, kung fu or tae kwan do, are based on speed and strength. An internal martial art, such as tai chi, is focused on body awareness and movement and has traditionally been seen as a healing exercise or Eastern medical remedy. Western medicine is starting to see the benefits, as well. The Mayo Clinic touts it as a way to decrease stress and depression, increase balance and flexibility and even as a way to reduce the risk of falling, improve symptoms of heart failure and enhance the immune system.

Aside from the physical benefits, some are attracted to the mental and emotional benefits.

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"There are different styles of tai chi, but all share the same principles," Samura said. "People come to these classes because they're interested in martial arts or yoga or meditation. The ones that stay say that they're able to find a calm part of themselves or a peace of mind through tai chi."

New classes coming soon

Samura now teaches a class of about six to 10 students at the Avon Recreation Center, and with the start of the new year, the rec center will begin offering more classes. The current class is for intermediate to advanced students, but classes that start in January will be focused on beginners.

Briony Hunn, a longtime practitioner, will teach a beginning tai chi class, and students will then have the opportunity to advance into Samura's class.

"Anyone is welcome to come and learn the foundational basics. You can walk away with some wonderful knowledge, even with one class," Hunn said.

A second class will focus on qi gong and restorative body movement, which involves repetitive stretches and movements that serve to warm up the body, focus on individual joints and maintain flexibility.

"Some people aren't interested in learning the full form of tai chi exercises because it takes so much time," Hunn said. "I want people to just be able to benefit from the foundational knowledge. The focus will be on how we're moving, awareness and making your movement more efficient."

At Samura's biweekly class, students have a chance to practice together and, maybe more importantly, ask questions and learn more about tai chi philosophy.

"Most people move through life thinking they're comfortable — but they're not," Samura said to the class on a Monday evening. They then discussed what it feels like to be physically centered and how to identify unconscious tenseness in your own body.

After the discussion, the class moved into the part of tai chi that people are most familiar with — form, or kata. This series of movements is often done in sync as a group, and there almost seemed to be a silent beat in the room as the students completed the choreographed practice.

Doing the forms together has a number of advantages, said student Jade Brink, who has been practicing tai chi since 2000. Students can get feedback, and he added that the class helps him let go of tension at the end of the day.

"I call (the warm ups at the beginning of the class) leaving the baggage at the door," Brink said. "You put whatever's going on in your life outside. It frees up your mind to focus on your body and to wander around your body to find where your tension is."

Tension free

The students in Avon's tai chi class said they have found a number of side benefits to tai chi that keep them coming back for more.

Brink said the balance he gains from the practice help him in other sports, such as snowboarding and mountain biking. In the winter, it helps prevent falls and slips on ice and snow.

He's practiced other forms of martial arts for years but eventually looked for something that was less harsh on his body. Tai chi unexpectedly changed his mindset, as well.

"One aspect of martial arts that originally was interesting to me was as an outlet for my temper. I used to get mad and wreck things," he said. "Tai chi helps with my interactions with people and even helps me in deescalating situations, like with students or with parents. It also helps me to focus."

Hunn used to play soccer as a child but struggled with knee and shin pain. Doctors couldn't figure out the source of the pain, but when she began practicing tai chi at age 13, she discovered that her knee was out of alignment.

"I brought tai chi into my daily movement. I concentrated on the movement over the course of two years and corrected my alignment. I've been pain free now for a very long time," she said.

She thinks that addressing the root of someone's movement problems could have a big impact on the area's active population.

"I think it's so preventative. I wonder how often people have to replace hips or knees because of they way they move. Maybe that could be prevented," she said.

Assistant Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and mwong@vaildaily.com. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.

Join a class

The Avon Recreation Center will be offering beginner’s tai chi and a restorative body movement class based on qi gong principles beginning Jan. 4. Beginning tai chi is Monday and Wednesday from 5-6 p.m. Restorative body movement is Monday from 12:30-1:30 p.m. and Wednesday from 10-11 a.m. For more information, call 970-748-4060.