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Balancing Act

Tai chi brings ancient approach to modern problems


My moving meditation didn't seem so meditative as I stood with the rest of the beginners, raising my arms slowly in front of me for the umpteenth time, trying to figure out the nuanced differences between what I was doing and what the instructor was doing.

As I struggled with keeping my hands at a 45-degree angle, I couldn't help but stare over my shoulder in the mirror, watching the group of advanced students behind me silently make their way through a prescribed series of movements. They were fluid, graceful and poised--the personification of calm and concentration. And some of them were twice my age.

Unlike many sports, tai chi is not necessarily a young person's game. Instead, mastery of the ancient form of martial arts is the reward of years of practice and dedication. I was reminded of this fact every time I compared my semi-awkward movements to those of the people who had put years into tai chi.

Still, instructor Jeffrey Vik didn't give up on the true beginners in the downtown YMCA gym, as he patiently repeated his movements, his yin-yang T-shirt and long ponytail reminding me of the inner peace we were all working toward.

For centuries, the ancient Chinese practice has been used as a way to maintain health, both mentally and physically. It came to the United States with Chinese immigrants but has slowly spread to the larger community as a way to relax and stay in shape.

Vik, 51, found tai chi in 1980 when he randomly picked up a library book in Mountain Home. He was intrigued as he thumbed through its pages, later trying some of the moves on his own.

"I totally took everything wrong," he said with a laugh as he described his first attempt at tai chi. "But it was fun."

For years, all he could find were books on tai chi. He dabbled with various forms of kung fu--which he describes as similar to tai chi, "just with more bruises"--but he didn't find a practice that felt right until he moved to Boise and saw a notice for a tai chi class.

"The teacher figured I would last one week," Vik said with a laugh.

He describes tai chi as a "moving meditation," in which a pattern of movements facilitate the proper flow of energy through the body.

Those movements also help align the body correctly, increase flexibility in joints and add strength to muscles and bones. Many practitioners believe that when the energy--called chi--gets moving right, it can alleviate many health problems along with aches and pains.

There are many forms of tai chi, but Vik practices one of the oldest traditional forms, called Classical Yang, which incorporates 108 distinct movements into what almost looks like a dance. Practitioners slowly shift their weight from one foot to the other as they turn from side to side, their arms acting out a series of motions in unison. The movements require steady concentration, offering a form of meditation.

Some more modern forms of tai chi are focused on as few as 24 or 48 movements, while other forms use variations in speed. Each style has its own approach, yet all have the common focus on finding balance through relaxed movement from the center of the body.

"The body is designed to move in a certain way, but it's not always used that way," said Vik. "[Moving incorrectly] doesn't allow chi to move through the body."

Getting that chi flowing also allows for the release of tension, which is why many people who find their way to tai chi say they're looking for a way to relax.

That's exactly what drew Steve Bailey, 57, to tai chi 19 years ago.

"I had a high-stress job and just needed something to relax," he said.

Bailey doesn't look like the stereotypical tai chi practitioner. With a full beard and wearing worn Converse tennis shoes, he effortlessly makes his way through the pattern, leading a handful of other students who range from curious teenagers and mid-20s hipsters, to middle-aged professionals and retirees.

Many students, though, are discovering the fitness benefits. The slow, graceful motions may not seem like a strenuous workout, but Vik said tai chi increases both heart rate and breathing without putting stress on either system, while the core-muscle-based movements build both strength and balance.

At age 77, balance and posture are considerations for Pat Fujii, who first saw the class while volunteering at the West Boise YMCA. While Fujii described how beneficial tai chi is for seniors, she mentioned that she is also a competitive sprinter and long jumper who will represent Idaho at the upcoming Senior Games.

As an athlete, Fujii noticed how the jarring motion of running hurt her joints. But tai chi taught her a new way of moving and standing, and since beginning her practice seven years ago, she said she's noticed an improvement in how she feels.

It's a result Vik said he commonly hears whether it's among the 20- to 40-somethings he teaches at Boise State, or the 30- to 70-year-olds who are in his classes at the YMCA.

While the popularity of tai chi in Boise doesn't rival its popularity in cities like San Francisco or Vancouver, British Columbia, it is growing. Still, the sight of someone standing in a park doing a very focused, dance-like activity catches some people off guard.

Occasionally, Vik said he has had passersby either heckle or outright yell at him as he practices. But the most dramatic response came when he was visiting his mother in his boyhood home in the Midwest. While practicing in the back yard, a neighbor called the police claiming some man had killed the house's resident and was doing some kind of ritualistic dance in celebration.

That kind of response isn't the norm, but Vik still figures there's strength in numbers. He recently organized a gathering for World Tai Chi Qigung Day, in which teachers and students from across the area could meet.

The response was so positive that he has decided to make it a monthly gathering on the first Saturday of each month. The next is scheduled for 8 a.m. on Saturday, June 6, at Capitol Park. Numerous teachers will be on hand and the curious can check out the various forms and styles to see if one works for them.

For Vik, it's not just about building community among tai chi practitioners, but making it more visible to the general community. That way a group of people doing some kind of dance in public won't feel so out of place.

"[You can] feel OK about doing weird things in parks," he said.

Personally, I've got a way to go before I try anything resembling tai chi in a public park. You never know how people will react to someone who stands in one place, continually raising and lowering her arms.

For more information on Tai Chi Qigung Day, call Vik at 208-703-8163.