More and more South Floridians are discovering the benefits of Tai Chi

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The art of tai chi is more than you can put into words. In his book of proverbs, Wisdom for the PathBruce Lee says, “For me, ultimately, martial art means speaking honestly.”

Today, the Chinese tradition, and one of the best-known martial arts, is practiced as a graceful form of exercise. Its benefits range from increasing energy and endurance to decreasing stress, exercising the lungs, and improving flexibility and balance.

In China, for the past two years, tai chi has been used in treatment plans for mild cases of COVID-19. And in The Harvard Medical School’s Guide to Tai Chipublished in 2013, author Peter Wayne, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, cites over 600 academic papers on the health benefits of tai chi.

Xia Zhang, a Chinese teacher at St. Brendan High School in Westchester and a teacher at the Strategic Language Institute at Florida International University, was born in the Chinese province of Shandong. She began studying tai chi before leaving China for South Florida in 2012 and meeting her teacher, Grandmaster Zhenglei Chen, at a workshop in Atlanta. Today, Zhang uses tai chi in her classes and at the Chinese Dragon Club of St. Brendan.

“My teacher taught us how to use the power of tai chi in our daily lives,” says Zhang. “Whenever I teach tai chi at school, I clearly see the benefits of tai chi in my students. Tai chi can reduce students’ stress and anxiety.”

Outside of St. Brendan’s, Zhang serves as president of the Chinese Language Teachers Association of South Florida and teaches free tai chi classes in the Brickell area and at David Kennedy Park in Coconut Grove.

“Compared to other parts of the United States, the popularity of tai chi in South Florida has yet to improve, but I can see light and hope,” Zhang said.

Oliver Pfeffer discovered tai chi when he was 10 years old.

“I remember seeing a group of people outside near a creek in Boulder, Colorado, moving very slowly,” Pfeffer said. “It looked like they were all in another dimension slightly slowed down or underwater. I couldn’t imagine what was going on, but they all seemed to be very still inside as they moved around and had looked very peaceful. I asked my mother, ‘What is this?.’ She told me it was tai chi, and that was my introduction.”

The founder of Pelican Port Tai Chi, Pfeffer teaches weekly classes at the Miami Shores Community Center. He is also an acupuncturist and teaches first-year acupuncture students at the Atlantic Institute for Oriental Medicine in Fort Lauderdale. In her practice, Pfeffer seeks to connect body and mind.

“Many explain that you can use Tai Chi practice to gain an embodied understanding of polarities, using the yin/yang symbol as a filter, to help reveal imbalances in our mind/body, even at subconscious levels,” he explains. “I have recovered from many ailments when I was younger using tai chi. Perhaps more importantly, I use my tai chi practice now that I am older to feel better when I become out of balance , to prevent, or at least minimize, the effects of any stress-related disease.”

The attention to health during the pandemic has placed greater emphasis on the importance of physical activity as part of a daily routine. In “Why Tai Chi is as good for you as Crossfit,” a Time magazine article published in 2017, the aforementioned Dr. Wayne writes: “It’s like meditation on wheels. You get all the cognitive stuff you could get from meditation – mental clarity and focus, positive thoughts and stress reduction – but you’re also doing physical exercise.”

In South Florida, tai chi classes can be found at meetup groups in Fort Lauderdale, at Enchanted Forest Park (taught by Sifu Wong), and at a dedicated Kung Fu Connection program in North Miami under the guidance of of Master Rubio, where Pfeffer first studied when he moved to Miami.

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Xia Zhang uses tai chi in her classes and at the Chinese Dragon Club in St. Bredan.

Photo courtesy of Xia Zhang

“The tai chi community in South Florida is slowly growing in terms of numbers of people, but more importantly, it is growing significantly in the quality of the type of tai chi people practice,” Pfeffer said. “Remember that tai chi is really an art that is about refining principles like alignment, active relaxation, freer natural breathing, mindfulness. The shapes and styles are just choreography , containers for us to explore and refine these very specific embodied qualities which, if applied diligently pursued over time, can create massive transformation in our body and mind.

“When open-minded tai chi practitioners come together to form or “play” – what some people call pushing hands exercises or pair exercises – they can, simply by touching and moving together, begin to pass and hone these embodied skills from one person to another,” he continues. “There is nothing quite like the embodied transmission of this type of practice, where years of our habitual patterns of stress can dissolve in an instant.”

According to Zhang, “There are different types of practice in China. We normally recommend most tai chi beginners and older people to practice tai chi warm-up stretching techniques first, which are basic forms, relatively easy to grasp.Examples include Chen style 18 forms, one of the most popular forms for beginners.Chen style tai chi is the origin of other main tai chi styles .Over the past 100 years, it has been passed down from generation to generation with the same dedication, and further developed into Yang style, Wu style (Jianquan), Wu style (Yuxiang) and Sun style of the Taijiquan.”

Zhang uses both music and tai chi to teach her students in her Chinese classes.

“We do 30 minutes of tai chi before class,” she says.

At the Chinese Dragon Club, which has 100 members, Zhang introduced her students to different elements of Chinese culture, including a recent celebration of Chinese New Year, the Year of the Tiger.

By definition, tai chi, short for tai chi quan, means “ultimate supreme”. In the Chinese language, the word chiWhere Qihas a deep meaning.

“Qi is the circulating life force whose existence and properties are the basis of Chinese philosophy and medicine,” Zhang explains. “It’s an imaginary thing that you can’t easily understand without knowing the corresponding theories and accumulating hours of relevant practice.”

In addition to tai chi, some may be familiar with the practice of qigong.

“Qigong can be thought of as a movement that you do for a certain situation, as opposed to the form of tai chi, which is a series of movements that work the whole body in a flowing sequence,” says Zhang. “For example, qigong can be a movement that helps open the lungs.”

During the pandemic, YouTube videos showed Chinese medical staff practicing qigong and tai chi with COVID patients in Wuhan.

“I find the health benefits of tai chi to be consistent with the wisdom espoused in the Yellow Emperor Medicine Classic, written over 2,000 years ago,” says Pfeffer. “Once upon a time, sages treated disease by preventing disease before it broke out, just as a good government or an emperor was able to take the necessary measures to avert war. Treating a disease after it has started is like suppressing a revolt after it has broken out. If someone digs a well when thirsty or forges weapons after engaging in battle, one cannot help but ask, “Aren’t these actions too late?”

In the words of Lao Tzu of Tao Te Ching“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

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