[Published in The Atlanta Journal / The Atlanta Constitution on February 22, 1994.]

Ancient Chinese exercise offers meditation in motion

By Jeri Butler


They appear to be swimming through space; their upturned hands pushing back the air from their foreheads and then pulling it back.

Legs bend deeply, fingers spread apart.  Shoulders turn from side to side.

The students of Taoist tai chi are quiet as they go through their 108 gentle, rhythmical movements.  The only sound is the sliding of their feet on the floor.

Tai chi is an ancient Chinese exercise of slow, fluid, spherical movements intended to increase the body's agility and calm the mind.

"Tai chi strengthens every part of the body and creates suppleness," said tai chi instructor Marylou Gabbert.  "The goal is for all systems of the body to work at optimum efficiency."

The bending, lunging and kicking postures and movements strengthen the legs, arms and back.  Spiral motions make the spine more supple.

"Before I got into tai chi, I could hardly lift up my arm," says Laura Farmer, 77, of Jensen Beach, Fla.

Farmer, who has some arthritis in her shoulder and takes care of her husband, who has Parkinson's disease, said she was exhausted all the time.  "I needed to find something that would help me", she says.

"I've been teaching it for eight years. In the last couple of months I've seen an increase in the number of students. In my class, they range from 21 to 72 years old. This is something people can do for life..."

Atlanta tai chi instructor

After one year, Farmer moves gracefully with deep concentration as she goes through the tai chi motions.  "I forget about my pain. I feel relaxed," she says.

Farmer is teaching some of the hand and arm movements to her husband.

As with many other exercise regi mens, tai chi should be done daily for maximum benefit.  Throughout China, it's performed in public parks in the early morning.  "It helps to share the energies of other people," Farmer says.

Another student, Mary Ettinger, agrees.  "You feet like you are in communion with other people.  It makes you energized."

Tai chi takes a lot of concentration when you're a beginner, but instructors say that as time goes by the body's memory takes over.  The mind doesn't have to work as hard, and tai chi becomes more meditative.  "We say, 'In movement, there is stiffness. And in stillness, there is movement.'" says Gabbert.  "Tai chi is a moving meditation."

Based on the Eastern belief that paths of energy, called chi, circulate through the body, tai chi stimulates the movement of this energy, creating a healthier body.

Gabbert says there should be no mystery about chi.  "Tai chi movements get the blood flowing, strengthen the immune system and increase lung capacity."

Tai chi also improves balance and massages the internal organs, she says.  It's helpful for all ages and even those with injuries or illnesses that might force them to abandon other exercise regimens.