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A path to tai chi

Tuesday, August 01, 2000

By Rhonda Miller, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When Stan Swartz started taking tai chi classes 27 years ago, he was so afraid of moving the wrong foot that he often skipped class entirely.

  Stan Swartz leads a tai chi class at the Wilkins School Community Center in Regent Square.

"I was just always tense and nervous. As a kid I was always fiddling around, I couldn't stand still. I was shy and did most things by myself," says the 56-year-old Squirrel Hill resident, who now moves with the solidity of a mountain tempered by the gentleness of a willow.

Today, through what he has learned from tai chi, he no longer struggles with fear and isolation.

  Finding a teacher

Tai chi chuan classes are offered at community centers, colleges, health clubs, YMCAs, hospitals and senior citizen centers throughout the region.

Because there is no standard certification of tai chi teachers, the burden of finding a good instructor is on the student.

Stan Swartz, who teaches 25 classes throughout the region, said his teacher advised students not to study with anyone who required a long-term contract or a uniform, or who taught other martial arts used for self-defense.

Most important is to make sure that whatever form is studied, it adheres to the basic principles of tai chi, including balance, body alignment and relaxation, he said. The more than 50 basic principles of tai chi are found in the classic books on the subject.

In choosing a teacher, find out with whom the instructor trained, how long the teacher has taught, and whether the style of tai chi meets the needs of the student, said Judy Crow, a tai chi teacher for 20 years.

Students are urged to attend class at least once a week, and to practice at home every day. Classes typically last an hour, with perhaps half the time devoted to doing the form and the rest of the time working on individual movements or discussing the exercises.

Fees are nominal, typically a few dollars to $10 per class, depending on the instructor and organization offering it.

Swartz's embrace of tai chi began in a Washington, D.C. suburb in 1973.

He already had a bachelor's degree in psychology, was working toward his master's and had an internship working with special needs children.

"I decided I had to work on myself before I became a psychologist," says Swartz.

During this time, he also visited a physical therapist for problems caused by weight-lifting. The therapist suggested he try tai chi to improve his balance.

"I liked the feelings of being calm, relaxed and grounded that tai chi gave me," Swartz remembers

Because of the fear of making a mistake in the class, he practiced at home. The goal of the slow, precise and floating movements of tai chi is to allow the energy to move through the body, not to push it with muscles.

"One day I was standing still, practicing tai chi at home by myself, and I just felt the shift of weight. I realized that I couldn't do it until I relaxed and trusted."

With that trust in the flow of chi came trust in many other parts of his life.

"I found that tai chi answered more questions than psychology," says Swartz. He let the traditional study of psychology go, worked at odd jobs and became an avid tai chi student, making rapid progress once he felt more comfortable going to classes.

"Tai chi gave me the courage to make changes in my life," he says. He moved to New York to study and was asked to help teach classes in Europe.

"My tai chi teacher gave me a one-way ticket from New York and said that if I wanted to come back, I'd have to earn my way."

From 1976-77, Swartz and another teacher led five-day tai chi intensives in a circuit that included Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Paris and London. He earned his fare back to New York, and in 1981 returned to Pittsburgh to visit family.

He decided to stay, and began teaching tai chi -- a choice that led to meeting his wife, Patty, in one of his classes 12 years ago. She now helps plan his schedule and does some teaching as well.

Swartz's 25 classes serving about 300 students keep him teaching several hours per day, seven days a week.

"Tai chi isn't just for relaxation," says Swartz. "It teaches you to resolve things that come up, let go of the past and stay in the moment.

"I feel younger and healthier today than I did when I was 29. I used to feel vulnerable on the inside, so I would lift weights to try to build myself up on the outside. With tai chi, I've learned to relax on the outside and be strong on the inside."

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