More MS news articles for July 2002

Tai Chi provides fitness, relaxation

Monday, July 22, 2002
By Melissa Clement
Staff writer

Ralph Hoggard was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1994 at the age of 57. He resigned his job as a stockbroker and faced a bleak future.

A few months later he heard about tai chi and signed up to take classes under David Chin .

Today he is still taking tai chi at the Southeastern Regional Rehabilitation Center of Cape Fear Valley Health System . He has missed only a few of the classes that Chin gives three times a week.

‘‘I really think tai chi has kept me out of a wheelchair,’’ Hoggard says. ‘‘So many people who have this are in rest homes and wheelchairs. It has really helped me with my balance. It gives me energy and helps me relax. I would like to get more people involved. It’s been a blessing to me.’’

Tai chi (pronounced ti chee or ti gee) is a gentle form of martial arts developed in China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Based on the idea of overcoming attackers by using their own force against them, the movements are similar to kung fu but it is performed more slowly. Millions of Chinese start each day by practicing it outdoors in large groups.

It was introduced into this country in the 1970s and has been touted by doctors and health magazines since.

Benefits include strengthening muscles, relaxing the body, promoting balance and preventing falls among the disabled and elderly.

One of the most valuable exercises, Hoggard says, is posting.

As the class begins, a dozen students, male and female from 18 to 80 years old, take their places facing a platform on which Chin stands. His back is to them so they can copy his motions.

They begin by posting, or practicing chi kung, a tai chi position that promotes circulation and the flow of energy. Students stand still, legs apart, knees slightly bent, heads erect and hands limp. Chin croons ‘‘Think of your favorite place, some pleasant time in your childhood, forget worries and stress.’’

While soft music plays, students use imagery and meditation to promote relaxation.

‘‘Breath deeply and imagine a waterfall. You are cleaning your lungs, liver, kidney and heart.

‘‘Slowly inhale, exhale.’’

Another set has students moving to ‘‘the dragon whipping its tail.

“Shift to the right, shift to the left. Exhale as you go down,’’ Chin says. ‘‘The white crane spreading its wings, right toe kick. Reach for the reflection of the moon.’’

The exercise stretches numerous muscles and helps with deep breathing, according to Chin. The last set is a more lively punching exercise. It ends with hands striking the air and a lung-clearing ‘‘Haa.’’

There is no uniform required in this class. Students dress in short and sandals, sneakers and long pants. Anything comfortable. Not everyone keeps in perfect step or are capable of doing all the bends. Chin says it doesn’t matter; they improve with practice.

Chin says he has had students in his classes from age 14 to 82. Some of their problems have been hypertension, weight problems, arthritis, hip replacements, diabetes, spinal, knee and hip injuries, and joint stiffness.

Dr. Wayne Welsher, a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon and a student of Chin, recommends his patients study tai chi. He says the slow movements of the exercise promote agility, balance, motor skills and self awareness for cardiac patients and individuals of all ages. It provides a moderate form of exercise without stress, he says.

Three years ago, Charles Warren had a stroke. As he recovered, neurologist Dr. Richard Serano recommended tai chi as a way to improve his balance and strengthen his body.

He has been taking classes ever since.

‘‘After three months I could tell that I had made a vast improvement in my balance and in my general physical conditioning and general health,’’ Warren said. ‘‘I plan to keep taking it. It works every muscle in your body.’’

Not everyone in the class is trying to repair damage.

Shon Washington is 23. He is taking tai chi because he wants to get into the martial arts and Chin told him it would help him to learn the basics and discipline of tai chi before going into other martial arts.

Al Alvarez has been taking Chin’s class for six years. The retired lieutenant colonel, who is 78 years old, says he is surprised at just how much it has improved his health and happiness. He jokes that since taking the class he has gotten taller and his eyes have begun to twinkle.

Marie Winfree is in good shape and rides her bike five miles between 6 and 6:30 each morning. She got interested in tai chi when she went on a cruise and free lessons were offered.

‘‘It looked so graceful. When I took a few lessons I fell in love with it. I gave myself a birthday present of the lessons because I sit all day in my job and at night I’m dying to get moving. One reason I take it is because it helps me slow down. We do meditation first, then stretching all the joints in the body and then we do punching and hollering. We end up with a bang. I look forward to coming to class. ’’

Winfree likes the camaraderie and the diversity of the group and enjoys their outings together. They often visit other cities and have breakfast together on Saturday mornings. Earlier this month Chin took a group of his tai chi and martial arts students to China for martial arts competitions while others enjoyed a culture tour.

Chin was born in Canton, China, and earned the title of ‘‘master’’ of the form Hop Ga Kung Fu. He has written a book about the art. His father practiced martial arts and worked at the American embassy in Hong Kong until the Communists took over and the family immigrated to San Francisco in 1955. Chin began training in the martial arts at age 13, studying with an 82-year-old master. He continued studying under him for 10 years.

Chin says tai chi not only relaxes and energizes the body but it works with the mind to help the immune system prevent illness.

‘‘It is a total body, mind and spirit workout,’’ he says.

Tai chi classes are held at the hospital’s Rehabilitation Center and at HealthPlex of Cape Fear Valley Health System. Call 860-7539 for class schedules and fees.

Judith Pikul, owner and director of The Center for Natural Medicine Inc., is a former student of Chin. Her center offers tai chi classes on Tuesdays and Thursday from 7 until 8 p.m. The teacher is Lee Holbrook. The classes are open to all ages. Fall classes will included children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Classes are $10 per class or $50 a month. The center is at 404 Hope Mills Road, Fayetteville. Telephone 423-4086.

Staff writer Melissa Clement can be reached at 486-3528

Copyright 2002 The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer