Slow motion: Tai chi class keeps you moving without sweating

  • By Sarah Jackson Herald Writer
  • Friday, December 30, 2011 3:09pm
  • Life

In a fast-paced world dominated by busy schedules, seemingly constant noise and inescapable stress, Phyllis Bagwell is most grateful for tai chi.

When she practices the slow, meditative movements, she always feels better.

“Everything is calmer. I move slower,” the retiree said. “It’s a sense of peace that I get. Joy.

“I wish I would have known about this when I worked.”

On a recent Wednesday morning at the Marysville YMCA, Bagwell, who lives in Granite Falls, was among 20 students who seemed to feel the same.

Moving under the calm direction of instructor Beth Preston, they looked like choreographed dancers, reaching, swaying and pausing in slow motion together.

“Everyone moving in the same way, I love that,” Bagwell said after class. “It’s just beautiful.”

Preston, 61, who lives in Snohomish and teaches around the county, is an accredited teacher of tai chi chih, a series of 19 movements and one pose.

Unlike the more common martial arts form of tai chi known as tai chi chuan, tai chi chih is a relatively new form of the practice developed in 1974 by Ohio native Justin Stone.

Both are forms of qigong, the ancient Chinese practice of using breath, movement and awareness to balance and circulate the natural energy in and around the body, known as qi or chi.

But tai chi chih, Preston said, is not a martial art or a self-defense discipline. It doesn’t require balancing, lunging or squatting moves, just slow, fluid movements of the arms and simple side to side and back and forth shifting movements with the feet.

Stone, a former Wall Street broker, poet and musician, mastered tai chi chuan after many years in Japan, India and China.

He created tai chi chih so everyone, including older adults, could take up the practice through fewer and simpler movements.

Seven years ago, Preston was a skeptical student of the practice.

“But right from the beginning, I felt a wonderful difference,” Preston said. “Tension just seemed to melt away. I had more energy.”

Preston soon became a teacher. During the past three years, she has built a dedicated group of students at the Marysville Y.

Willow Williams of Arlington, 64, said she tried numerous tai chi classes before finding the right fit with Preston’s tai chi chih, pronounced tie chee cha.

“I only have one complaint,” she said. “It isn’t every day.”

Though Preston’s class happens at a gym, it doesn’t involve profuse sweating, straining, stretching or holding poses.

Preston spends the first half of class teaching the intricacies of certain moves, such as a gentle push-pull motion with the arms while rocking slowly from one foot extended forward and one set back.

“These are small movements,” Preston told the class. “We’re not reaching out to the next county here. ” Students don’t have to coordinate their inhaling and exhaling with their movements. That rhythm comes naturally with practice.

“I’ll remind you to breathe,” Preston said.

In addition to offering stress relief, tai chi has been linked to improved physical health.

Major medical journals and scientific studies have linked consistent tai chi practice to better balance, flexibility and strength, fewer falls in older adults, better sleep and reduced pain caused by arthritis and other illnesses.

Preston spends the second half of class doing the flowing practice of tai chi chih. She turns lights down low, puts on soft background music and then moves methodically through various movements.

Though exceptionally graceful and calm, Preston is surprisingly easy to mimic. She announces the moves by name — Bird Flaps Its Wings, Around the Platter, Bass Drum and Daughter on the Mountaintop.

Afterward, Preston and her students sit in a circle of chairs set up before the start of class.

They plant their feet on the floor and close their eyes while Preston shares inspirational words and ideas for more balanced living.

It’s an experience Williams said she can’t get anywhere else.

“I feel a calm on the deepest level,” she said. “There’s nothing that calms like tai chi.

“Yoga is good, but tai chi is excellent.”

Resources

Find a class: Beth Preston of Snohomish teaches weekly tai chi chih classes at the YMCAs in Marysville (360-653-9622) Mill Creek (425-337-0123; www.ymca-snoco.org), at the Laughing Buddha Yoga Studio in Mill Creek (206-617-1672; laughingbuddhayogastudio.com) and through ArtsNow in Edmonds (425-640-1243; edcc.edu/artsnow). Go to harmony-arts.com to learn more about Preston.

Learn more: Go to www.taichichih.org to learn more about the practice of tai chi chih and to find other local accredited instructors.

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