2006-05-03 / Front Page

Tai chi aims to calm the body, soothe the soul


Staff Writer

EDISON - Like a wave, their arms swam through the air.

Their bodies turned this way and that. Backs were arched. The left foot met with the right hand. A kicking gesture, it looked as if these people were performing martial arts in slow motion.

That's because they were.

Members of the World Institute for Self Healing (WISH), the Huaxia Edison Taiji Club, the Chinese Heritage School of New Jersey and the Murray Hill Chinese School presented demonstrations in the grassy fields of Roosevelt Park Saturday as part of the World Tai Chi and QiGong Day.

Labeled as "an unprecedented global health and healing event," it began at 10 a.m. April 29 in New Zealand. Mass tai chi and qigong exhibitions followed in parks and public places around the world.

Then, as the Earth turned, these events would unfold time zone by time zone, across 60 nations, spanning six continents, creating a healing wave of health education, according to a press release.

"I see this big gap between the Eastern and Western cultures," said Kevin Chen, a member of WISH and an organizer of the Roosevelt Park event. "I wanted to be part of this movement to introduce what we call a self-healing, preventive culture."

"When I went to college [in China], there was a break between two classes," he said. "The college would have the break and everyone would practice tai chi in an open area. That's just part of our culture."

Chen said the popularity of tai chi and qigong, pronounced "chi kung," has risen in the West as a result of the increased stress produced by modern culture and skyrocketing health-care costs.

Chen, a psychologist with the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, said the West has developed a culture that does not work toward finding alternate ways to solve their physical ailments. Instead, Western culture puts total faith in doctors and hopes for the best.

"If you only take medicine, the medicine will only temporarily relieve symptoms," Chen said. "This is a much better way than just waiting for the disease to happen and for the doctors to handle it."

Though the roots of tai chi are martial arts oriented, most people today do tai chi for health, said Joe Eber, of Plainfield, who has practiced tai chi for over 20 years.

"'If my opponent doesn't move, I don't move. If my opponent does move, I move faster,'" he said, quoting a traditional tai chi saying. "It means you're relaxed, you are sensitive to your opponent. You can almost sense their intention."

Besides physical advantages, there are myriad mental benefits from "the soft martial art," said Rich Lund, a tai chi and qigong instructor in Woodbridge who performed the wuji qigong form with Eber at the Saturday exhibition.

"It's an opportunity for a person to cultivate a calm mind," he said. "It also reaches the spirit so, through our practice, we become more balanced and are able to relate to each other at a calmer level."

"Through long-term practice, it sort of balances your emotions so you're not so quick to react," Lund added. "It is an exercise anyone can practice, young or old, at any fitness level."

To onlookers and participants, his words certainly seemed appropriate. The expansive grassy field was lightened by sun-dappled skies. A light breeze blew the hair and outfits of the performers, who ranged from preteens to senior citizens. Stress and worry were absent.

Barbara Lorenz, an instructor of tai chi, is a senior citizen. But she feels like "I'm in my 30s," she said.

Lorenz will be taking the class she teaches at the Metuchen Senior Center to the Cedar Oaks Nursing Home in South Plainfield at 1:30 p.m. on May 23, to show, and to prove, everyone can practice and benefit from these exercises.

"We have a lady in our class in her 80s, and she's in a walker," she said. "And she does it."

Lorenz said it was important for senior citizens, some who might otherwise spend their entire days in wheelchairs or hospital beds, to find something like tai chi to participate in.

"It is so rewarding when I get our class together and I hear the testimonials," she said. "You begin to think, all these things are true."

Across the age spectrum, 12-year-old Janice Ho, a sixth-grader at Herbert Hoover Middle School, lined up with the other members of the Huaxia Edison Taiji Club to perform "Tai Chi Gong Fu Fan," a martial art that uses a fan as a weapon.

The teen bounced around the park all morning. She chatted with friends or practiced her routine. But it was all business when she went to perform.

"It started a year ago at a talent show competition," said Carl Ho, Janice's father. "My wife and I practice; it's in the house, so it's easy access."

He said his family wanted to keep the Chinese tradition of tai chi in his central New Jersey household. More important, however, were the health benefits derived from it.

"It's fun to do, and I like making the sound with the fan," Janice said as she whipped the fan open and closed in two fluid movements, then literally bounced off.

"Show off - kids will be kids," her father laughed.

As the scheduled performances concluded, Chen spoke into the megaphone. He asked the crowd of more than 100 performers and onlookers to all come out to the field and participate in "8 form" tai chi quan, the simplest form of tai chi, based on the Yang style and consisting of eight movements. It further cemented the belief of participants that anyone could do it, whether they had ever done it before or not.

With practice, you'll never get bored, Eber said.

"Like any art, the deeper you go, the more interesting it gets," he said. "The hallmark is harmony and balance."

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