Tai Chi: Observing nature and imitating it

  • Instructor Kathryn Komidar, far right, leads a Tai Chi class at Toward Harmony Tai Chi and Qigong in Northampton. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Instructor Kathryn Komidar, far right, leads a Tai Chi class at Toward Harmony Tai Chi and Qigong in Northampton, May 3, 2019. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Instructor Kathryn Komidar, far right, leads a Tai Chi class at Toward Harmony Tai Chi and Qigong in Northampton, May 3, 2019. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Instructor Kathryn Komidar, far right, leads a Tai Chi class at Toward Harmony Tai Chi and Qigong in Northampton, May 3, 2019. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Participants cite improved balance as one of the benefits of practicing Tai Chi. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Instructor Kathryn Komidar leads a class at Toward Harmony Tai Chi and Qigong in Northampton. Classes include a progression of movements that may help to relax the body’s central nervous system. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Dan Winter teaches six classes a week at Toward Harmony Tai Chi and Qigong. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

@AndyCCastillo
Published: 5/6/2019 2:58:11 PM

Dan Winter of Northampton learned Tai Chi from a friend.

“He was in his 70s and had lots of energy, and I was impressed,” Winter said.

Decades later, Winter, who has arthritis, says he enjoys a relatively pain-free life and attributes this to a daily practice of Tai Chi. Since being diagnosed with arthritis, Winter said doctors prescribed him immunosuppressants, but he prefers to manage the pain symptoms on his own.

On this day, Winter is standing in front of large windows that frame the studio of Toward Harmony Tai Chi and Qigong on Center Street in Northampton, where he teaches six classes of Tai Chi to about 70 students each week. Instructing Tai Chi is his full-time job.

According to Winter, Tai Chi comes from Qigong, another eastern art form that emphasizes both internal and external balance as a path to good health. Winter says that Tai Chi consists of a gentle flow of progression of movements that are mostly circular, and help to relax the body’s central nervous system. Coinciding with the physical movements, practitioners try to quiet their minds and meditate.

“As a martial art, it relies upon relaxation,” said Jeff Rosen, a Tai Chi instructor with Northampton-based YMAA Western Mass Tai Chi & QiGong. Rosen says Tai Chi originated in China as “a short-range fighting system where the practitioner has to be really mind-body centered, tactically alert.”

Jeff Rosen, a New York native, began practicing Tai Chi in the 1980s so he could continue practicing karate at Cornell University. He suffered from back spasms that he later found out were caused by sciatica. The Tai Chi helped. Today, Rosen is the chief financial officer for the Solidago Foundation, a nonprofit that supports advocacy organizations, and practices daily to ground himself in a long-term goal.

“I grew up watching ‘70s and ‘80s television, being indoctrinated into the western mindset. To have a way to step out of that is a relief,” he said. “I do it for the constant improvement, having a system, and because I’m so short-term goal-focused as a New Yorker.”

There’s also a spiritual component that Denise Barry, who teaches classes a few times a week at the Northampton Senior Center, emphasizes in her practice.

“Tai Chi is based on Taoist philosophy — observing nature and imitating it,” she said. “We move with fluidity — branches don’t break, they bend.”

Barry noted that research has shown that Tai Chi can improve balance, lower blood pressure, and help to maintain joint flexibility, among other things. At one of Barry’s classes Wednesday afternoon, Deb Jacobs, 75, of Leeds, says she first came to the class to improve her balance and found that she enjoyed the meditation aspect.

“I love moving with other people — the energy in the room — it’s been great for me,” she said, noting that her balance has also improved. Susan Kyte, 69, of Easthampton, says she came for similar reasons and has had the same results.

“My doctor told me not to fall any more, so I came to Tai Chi to get my balance. I got it,” she said.

For Winter, who has a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, relief from his back pain has been gradual.

“Every time I came to a class, I felt better afterward,” he said. At home, he practices Wu Style Tai Chi, which he says is particularly good for lower back pain because it emphasizes movements that gently stretch the muscles surrounding the spine. Aesthetically, some Wu Style movements look similar to other athletic movements like a weightlifting squat. But unlike those exercises, Winter says many Tai Chi movements are designed to lengthen the vertebrae rather than engage stabilizing muscles.

To demonstrate, Winter stood with knees and arms slightly bent — “never fully extend, always have a slight bend in the joint,” he noted. He lifted his arms in front of him and floated his hands in slow, circular movements. Then Winter turned and bent at the waist, keeping his head lifted, and simultaneously lowered his pelvis, lengthening the spine. Before Tai Chi, Winter said, he was “chronically tight,” which exacerbated his arthritis.

“Doing that motion over and over again helped to loosen things up for me,” he said.

On Saturday, Winter led a group of more than 60 practitioners at Lampron Park in Northampton through a series of Tai Chi movements for World Tai Chi and Qigong Day, a global event intended to raise awareness about the health benefits of the practices. Winter said he wants to expel the myth that Tai Chi is something for elderly people and those who want to relax, noting that Tai Chi is sometimes used in cardiac rehabilitation and to manage depression.

In his experience, Winter says Tai Chi pairs well with other fitness activities like yoga or swimming, which he tries to do at the JFK Middle School pool a few times a week. The lessons he has learned through his Tai Chi practice — such as only practicing to 70 percent effort, a philosophy that’s taught at Toward Harmony — carry over to other aspects of fitness, Winter said.

“A lot of the time, especially as I was recovering from the back pain, I found that if I took it easy, I felt energized after coming out of the water,” he said.

Through his daily Tai Chi practice, Winter said he’s learned the difference between fitness and health.

“Fitness can make you strong, but it can also wear you down,” he said. On the other hand, someone can be very healthy without being fit, Winter said.

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@gazettenet.com.




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