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Tai chi chuan practitioners find balance and energy in its flowing motions

Tuesday, August 01, 2000

By Rhonda Miller, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Stiff and unbending is the principle of death.
Gentle and yielding is the principle of life.
The attitude is like water.
Water is a positive benefit to all things without competing with them.

-- Lao Tzu, father of Taoism

These writings describe an ancient Chinese practice far removed from our instantly gratified, fast-fed, overscheduled, adrenaline-charged society -- tai chi chuan.

Yet in Pittsburgh and across North America, thousands are embracing tai chi and other slow, meditative Eastern disciplines such as yoga, because they do remove us from our frenetic lives, restoring our balance and control.

Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette 

Often called a moving meditation, tai chi (pronounced tie jee) is a series of standing, graceful postures that are meant to move energy, known as "chi", smoothly throughout the body. Each movement is clearly defined by a specific alignment of the body and balance. Yet, like a river, the motion never stops.

The slow, supple moves look deceptively simple. In fact, they require intense control, concentration and energy.

A form of martial art, tai chi is now practiced more for inner healing and relaxation. It lowers blood pressure almost as well as moderate-intensity aerobics, according to results of a Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine study presented in 1998. Other studies show it confers improved muscle strength, particularly in the lower body, better flexibility, posture and balance.

Tai chi has been a boon to the elderly, easing arthritis symptoms and reducing their risk of falls. Local hospitals and insurance company wellness centers offer it, as do community centers, colleges, YMCAs, churches, schools, libraries and martial arts centers.

Ray Gindroz, an architect and urban designer who lives in Squirrel Hill, was having physical therapy for chronic back spasms when his therapist suggested yoga or tai chi to keep his posture aligned.

He and his wife, Marilyn, started attending tai chi classes led by Stan Swartz in Regent Square three years ago. "I started to see a change after a very few sessions, especially because of the way Stan teaches," says Gindroz, 59. "He stresses the idea of relaxing and sinking. It lowers the center of gravity."

It has been particularly helpful in his frequent air travel for work. On a recent trip, he was running to catch the shuttle train to get to his gate when the door began to close on him.

Before he began practicing tai chi, Gindroz figures, the bump would have twisted his back, causing a flare-up of the spasms. But the bump had no effect at all.

"Tai chi redistributes your weight and you move in a totally different way," he says.

Swartz, who teaches 25 classes throughout the Pittsburgh region, says his students range in age from their teens to their 90s. But he finds that most people come when they reach their 40s and begin to search for answers to the major questions of life.

"By practicing tai chi we can regain the flexibility that we had as a child," says Swartz. "When your body is in balance, your mind and emotions are in better balance. Your posture is your state of consciousness."

Tai chi's roots are in China, extending back six centuries before the birth of Christ. The basic principles are attributed to scholar and mystic Lao Tzu, who wrote and taught in the province of Hunan. He is the author of the basic work of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching.

    For more information

Community College of Allegheny County, North Campus, 412-369-3737. (Also other CCAC campuses)

Stan Swartz, Pittsburgh area tai chi instructor 412-421-8580

YWCA of Westmoreland County, Greensburg 724-834-9390

Taoist Tai Chi Society of Colorado, 1060 Bannock St., Denver, CO 80204, (303) 623-5163 This is a branch of an international society with locations in 38 states and 25 countries.

Taoist Tai Chi Society of Canada, 1376 Bathurst St., Toronto, ON M5R 3J1, (416) 656-2110.

East West Academy of Healing Arts, P.O. Box 31211, San Francisco, CA 94131, (415) 788-2227 (or in Toronto, CA (416) 920-4008)

The International Taoist Tai Chi Society has a site at

How teacher Stan Swartz found his path to tai chi.


Taoism is a calm, reflective and mystical view of the world. It embraces the beauty and the tranquility of nature and many tai chi postures are derived from the movements of animals and birds. Positions like "grasp bird's tail," "white crane spreads its wings" and "wind blowing lotus" are among the many in the chain of movements.

People often practice tai chi in the open air, believing the fresh air and tranquillity are conducive to a peaceful state of mind, with energy traveling more freely.

A variety of tai chi styles have evolved, with four main ones bearing the names of the Chinese masters who developed them: Yang, Chen, Wu and Sun.

Each style includes numerous "forms" -- combinations of stances that flow continuously into one another. All stances and breathing, in turn, originate from the center of the body, which is the tan t'ien (pronounced Dantian), about two inches below the navel.

Depending on the teacher, a form may consist of 24 to 100 stances. Some forms can be learned in a few weeks. But most students typically need one or two years to achieve the state of relaxed alertness and control of detail that tai chi requires.

According to legend, Swartz recalls, tai chi masters in ancient China taught one movement per year, to be perfected before moving to the next.

By the 19th century, modern forms of tai chi were brought to Beijing and became popular.

Because there are so many styles of tai chi and organizations that offer it, it is hard to track specifically how many people are practicing it in the United States. But as more Americans become disenchanted with traditional medicine and the impersonal aspects of managed care, they're turning to tai chi and other practices that treat the body as a whole, not merely the physical symptoms.

Dr. Joan Mavrinac of Mount Washington, an emergency room physician at Mercy Hospital, found the discipline helps her maintain focus.

"That's so important in the emergency room because we're always dealing with the stress of the patient and the family. You have to let go of all the distraction and do an appropriate procedure in the midst of chaos."

She has also found that the improved balance that comes from having practiced tai chi for three years helps relieve the physical stress of 12-hour shifts in the emergency room.

"If I think about how I'm standing, if I change my position, relax my muscles or turn my foot a different way, it can really help," says Mavrinac. "It's a very strange thing, but by being aware of what's happening physically and mentally, you can make a change. The result is that you get stronger through relaxation."

Linda Vucelich, 46, who teaches tai chi in Greensburg, Latrobe and Ligonier, discovered the practice helpful five years ago while recovering from a fractured pelvis suffered in an auto accident.

"I began to realize that there is more to healing than my bones being mended," Vucelich says. "I was going through a lot of turmoil in some personal relationships, especially with my family, and tai chi seemed to address the physical, psychological and spiritual levels. The changes are very subtle, but I felt that I developed more power to deal with issues, to stand my ground."

One of the early teachers in Pittsburgh was Judy Crow, a Highland Park resident who had heard of tai chi when a friend invited her to a class by Y.K. Chou in 1974.

Crow stuck with it and was later trained by Chou to be a teacher. Crow has taught for 20 years, mainly at Community College of Allegheny County's Stanwix Street center, Downtown.

The college's North Hills branch, meanwhile, has offered tai chi at several different spots for more than a decade with consistent interest from students, says Barbara White of the college's lifelong learning department.

This fall, CCAC will offer its first tai chi class at St. Barnabas retirement complex in Richland.

"I think tai chi has become more common because of our increasing health consciousness," says Crow.

"We're also living in very stressful times, and tai chi can reduce stress."

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