Volume XII, Issue 1 ~ January 1-7, 2004

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Why Herons Do Tai Chi
And why you might want to join them in your new year’s quest for fitness.
by Maureen Miller

Maureen Miller follows the form of the heron in her wellness quest.
It’s Wednesday. Bright sunlight creates an illusion as it turns the river into a shimmering bed of diamonds. Ducks and a great blue heron perform their daily rituals, just in sight of a small group of humans performing their own. Both are bathed in the early morning light, both gliding forward, backward, turning and dipping.

One of a growing number of tai chi groups along the Bay, we gather once a week to learn and practice together. Attending to balance, we perform the movements of our form — single whip, waving hands in clouds, embracing the tiger, pushing the mountain — each movement flowing gently into the next. As we place a foot, shift our weight, slowly move forward, sideways or backward, we mimic the Bay creatures. We seem to be swimming on land.

Tai chi, as well as yoga and qigong, are ancient exercises that are practiced religiously in the Eastern world. Now their popularity is increasing in Chesapeake Country, adding a new dimension to the burgeoning practice of wellness. In fact, it’s not hard to find classes offered in most gyms and community or health centers, as well as through adult education and community college programs.

That new dimension is really three, according to tai chi instructor and student Elizabeth Reed. She says she finds “tai chi fascinating in that it provides a meditative component, a health component and a martial arts component. Yielding to succeed,” she adds, “underlies this softest of the martial arts.”

Reaching for Wellness
Wellness is “a mindset, characterized by a strong sense of personal responsibilities,” according to Donald Ardell, director of the Wellness Center on the wellnessweb website.

Lesley Baumhower, director of the Natural Healing Wellness Center in Annapolis, offers wellness services that complement one another and treat the entire person: mind, body and spirit.

Bill West, manager of Wellness Services at the Anne Arundel Medical Center, defines wellness as the condition of good physical and mental health, especially when maintained by proper diet, exercise and habits.

Most wellness centers offer programs that teach proper nutrition as well as ways to de-stress and stay fit.

Herons Don’t Eat Veggies… but humans should
Wading in shallow water, great blue herons mainly hunt for fish, frogs, crayfish and snakes. However, not being fussy eaters, they are also known to eat insects, mice and other small animals.

We Bay residents also enjoy dining on marine life. Cooked preferably, and please keep those mice, snakes and insects off our plates. When asked, ‘Baked or fried?’ we’re tempted by our Bay traditions to choose the latter. Batter-fried, of course, as in soft shell crabs, chicken and oysters. And while you’re at it, throw in a few fries and maybe an onion ring or two. Salad you say I need? OK, give me a side of slaw.

The author’s Tai Chi class at West River Yacht Club practices their moves.
Yes, we know we should be eating less fast and fewer fried foods and more veggies or greens. But with little time in our busy lives between work, school and family plus the need to attend our Bay-honored oyster, ham, chicken, barbecue and crab feasts, how do we form good nutrition habits?

“I first came in to the wellness center just for the books,” remembers Baumhower. “Then I met the nutritionist. She has had the biggest impact on my life. From her I learned that eating right can be convenient. It doesn’t take any more time to buy, prepare and eat foods that are good for me instead of the fast foods I was so accustomed to.”

It is possible to find articles that teach the basics of proper nutrition and that offer recipes for balanced meals. But classes and events offered through the area’s community and wellness centers are a growing source of information. Such programs, with enticing titles like Nutrition: Weigh to Go and Fitness After 50, not only let us in on the secrets of good nutrition, they also provide an atmosphere of comradeship and group stimulation to form — and keep — these new eating habits.

In the words of athlete Jim Ryun, “Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”

Research shows that it generally takes about 28 days of doing the same thing before your brain takes over and makes it a habit. Once that happens, it’s easier to keep up the good work on an ongoing basis.

Anne Caldwell, a nutritionist at the Anne Arundel Medical Center Wellness Services, helps people set and keep their good eating habits through classes and counseling. “I really am a coach,” explains Caldwell. “I encourage people to make small changes daily. Any short-term goal we make must be something we can live with for the rest of our lives.” Caldwell reinforces new behaviors with small non-food rewards, and she coaches people to be patient and persevere in the journey for better health.

Proper nutrition is a big piece of the wellness picture, but finding ways to exercise and de-stress complete it.

Spreading wings … moving on from traditional exercises
Like many of our traditional Chesapeake Country activities — sailing, fishing, canoeing or kayaking — a proliferation of different activities, which place even more emphasis on meditation, strength and flexibility, are touted by wellness practitioners throughout the Bay area.

“What I like about yoga is how meditation is paired with exercise to promote the well-being of mind and body,” says Wellness Services’ West, who is a beginning yoga student.

Granted our local gyms are not thinking about throwing out those torturous weight machines, treadmills, or stationary bikes. Nor is there any chance they would do away with those popular high and low impact aerobics classes set to a pounding beat. However, they are supplementing these older forms of exercise with classes in yoga, tai chi and Pilates. And what’s more interesting is that fitness centers as well as health and community centers are discovering that these classes appeal to people of all ages.

Roberta Reeves of Chesapeake Yoga Center shows her form.
Jan Graves, who instructs a class she calls Yoga for Little Feet, says that her young students “learn quickly and enjoy their yoga poses. They even know how to bring themselves to a calm place by themselves, to instill peace and calm in their little worlds — which can sometimes get as hectic as many adults lives.”

Activities that are easy on the joints — like swimming, walking and bicycling — remain popular with Bay area seniors, but people over 40 find that tai chi practice also benefits their general health. Instructor Elizabeth Reed notes that other benefits are balance, flexibility, circulation and renewed energy.

The forms and movements of these Eastern immigrants to fitness can be learned by anyone of any age. What is further appealing about tai chi, qigong and yoga is that no special equipment, clothing or setting is needed for daily practice. They’re great exercises for the business traveler.

“It is wonderful to realize that I can balance a workout, meditation, peace and calm, in such a short time and in practically any space” says tai chi student Leticia Juarez-Aguirre who travels frequently to Europe, South America and Asia.
Herons Endure …

The Eastern forms have adapted to our lifestyles
Herons represent an extraordinary degree of evolutionary fitness. Fossil records indicate that the great blue heron and its extended family, the ardeidae — herons, egrets and bitterns — have been around for at least 14 million years. Unbelievably, the great blues we see today are virtually unchanged from those that stalked prehistoric swamps 1.8 million years ago.

While not being able to compete with the 14 million-year history of the ardeidaes, tai chi, qigong and yoga have been practiced for centuries. However, unlike the great blues we feel they imitate, these forms have not remained unchanged. Instead there has been an extraordinary evolution of styles and forms. The original forms have been added to, modified, revised and updated, depending upon the instructor, to fit the needs of their students’ lifestyles.

Pick up a schedule of classes from any community, fitness or wellness center in the Bay area, and you’ll begin to see the result of these modifications, revisions and updates: T’ai Chi Ch’aun, Refinement T’ai Chi Ch’aun, Chen Style Taiji, Taiji Sword, QiGong, AiChi, Gentle Yoga, Yoga for Weight Loss, Yoga Fit, Astanga Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Vinyasa flow Yoga, Contrology Yoga or Pilates/Yoga (the mix). Faced with such a plethora of styles and forms, how can you find a suitable program among them? Perhaps a quick look at the history of these traditional arts, as well as their differences and similarities, may help.

All three forms — qigong, tai chi and yoga — have their roots in the East. Qigong (pronounced chee gong), also written as ch’i kung, probably the least known of the three, is often considered the oldest. The word qigong is actually based on two Chinese ideograms: qi meaning life energy or life force, and gong meaning practice, cultivate or refine. Qigong, then, is the cultivation or refinement of one’s life energy.

Tai chi, qigong and yoga classes attract a mix of young and old.
According to Chinese medicine, a healthy organism or person has more qi or energy than a sick one. Health, however, is more than having an abundance of qi. Health implies that the qi is clear, not polluted, and that it flows smoothly. Some scholars believe that the practice of moving the qi in the human body goes back at least 5,000 years to the shamans in Stone Age India. This practice gradually spread through Asia and was incorporated into various traditional arts — including, yoga, tai chi, the martial arts and other types of healing.

Over the centuries, practice of these traditional arts moved from the East to the West. In leaping to the States, they appear to have first gained popularity in the San Francisco Bay area. After their California incubation, they spread eastward and are now widely embraced in our Bay Area.

Qigong practitioners work to control the flow and distribution of their qi to improve their health and the harmony of mind and body through breathing techniques, exercises, self-massaging and meditation.

“Qigong helps me focus my mind. When the mind is focused it can’t do other things, like feeling pain,” said one student.

There are at least a thousand methods of qigong — some elaborate and complex, some mysterious and esoteric and some simple and practical. There are also standing, sitting and supine methods.

Try this: sit up straight, relax your body, breathe deeply and rest your mind for a few moments. Guess what. You just began stimulating an automatic self-healing response — a basic form of qigong.

Other Adaptations
One of the longer forms of qigong is tai chi (pronounced tie jee ) — also seen written as t’ai chi or taiji, t’ai chi ch’uan or taijiquan (see sidebar). This form is composed of graceful movements linked together in a continuous, smooth-flowing sequence. Tai chi is often considered an internal martial art as it does not rely on physical strength but rather on inner awareness to achieve mental relaxation, fitness and spiritual balance.

“Using tai chi movements, my 115 pounds has moved over 200 pounds with only four ounces of pressure — in a very gentle, no-effort way,” explains tai chi ch’uan teacher Reed.

As with qigong, tai chi has numerous forms — both long forms, consisting of more than 100 movements, and short forms, consisting of anywhere from 12 to 48 movements. There are also a number of different styles — Yang, Chen, Wu and Sun style being the main ones — each named for its founder. Some styles have even been modified to assist people with specific illness, such as arthritis or diabetes.

Say the word yoga, and many of us conjure up images of people sitting in unbelievably contorted positions. Dedicated, lifelong yogis do religiously practice such postures, as they believe it is necessary to develop a strong, healthy and flexible body because a weak and tired body is a hindrance toward spiritual progress. Like tai chi and qigong, yoga takes advantage of many forms.

Most of these forms are based on the popular Hatha yoga, which is a series of postures or asanas. “The asanas are really metaphors,” explains Roberta Reeves, the founder of the Chesapeake Yoga Center in Solomons. “As you become more balanced and flexible in your body, you become more balanced and flexible in mind as well. It is truly a body-mind experience.”

The variety of yoga classes ranges from the gentle — like Vinyasa flow yoga — to the strenuous — like Ashtanga yoga, which is a type of power yoga — to Contrology yoga, which is a Pilates-yoga mix.

“Pilates focuses on stretching and strengthening the body to increase flexibility, improve posture and to tone the entire body, giving it a longer and leaner appearance,” says Chesapeake Yoga Center Pilates instructor Amy Currier.

Chesapeake Yoga Center instructor Amy Currier, who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in June, 2002, credits Pilates with helping her to deal with this painful disease and allowing her to live a relatively normal life.

Pilates can be done with equipment or with a mat. The mat exercises resemble yoga postures.

Teachers of each of these arts emphasize the wellness principles key to attaining a healthy body and mind: proper diet, proper exercise, proper breathing, proper relaxation, positive thinking and meditation.

Which Style is Right for You?
Tai chi, yoga, qigong: How does one go about making a choice between the three exercise and the styles and forms within each? We asked that question to several area teachers.

“Take a drop-in class and see if you like it,” recommended Victoria Morehead, a yoga teacher at the Annapolis Natural Healing Wellness Center. “The first week of all our classes is free, for this very reason.”

Other fitness and community centers offer the same advice and opportunity.

To some, a student-teacher relationship is more important than a particular style or form. To find a good teacher, Reeves of Chesapeake Yoga Center suggests that “a student interview the prospective teacher and determine how long that teacher has practiced, what style of yoga they teach and what their training has been.”

Cheryl Coursey, an acupuncturist and yoga teacher, suggests calling the teacher and asking about the class structure or sitting in on a class before enrolling as ways to find out whether the class and the style of teaching is right for you.

Another simple acid test is to ask how you feel after class. Are you more relaxed? Do you have more energy? Are you increasing in strength and flexibility with your practice?”

“Don’t be afraid to try another teacher or another mind-body exercise if your first attempt at yoga, tai chi, or qi gong doesn’t suit you. There are many options out there now,” Coursey advises.

Scientists suggest that herons are tuned to a different, more ancient, less hurried world and thus may do their silent fishing late into the night or in the wee hours of the morn.

In imitating these creatures, tai chi, qigong and yoga practitioners also seem to seek the less hurried world. They gather at the City Dock at sunrise in the spring, summer and fall and at Quiet Waters and other community parks at the crack of dawn or early evening.

If you take a moment to observe these early morning or evening rituals, you will begin to see the differences and similarities. Watch the bodies in movement — all ages, shapes and sizes — working toward flexibility, balance, fitness and lack of stress.

Perhaps you will join them in 2004.

About the Author:
Maureen Miller, a Galesville resident, comes from a family devoted to wellness. Drawn to Chesapeake Country for the natural peacefulness it offered in juxtaposition to a job in an international organization in DC, she shares her discoveries of the area with readers of Bay Weekly. She also shares her love of tai chi by teaching both a Sun and Yang style, preferably in the early morning hours.

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No Matter How You Spell It
Taiji: Pinyin for Supreme Ultimate, Immense Absolute
T’ai Chi: Wade-Giles for Supreme Ultimate, Immense Absolute

Looking at course catalogues or event calendars, you may see a variety of spellings — t’ai chi, tai chi and taiji — all pronounced tie chee; and qigong or ch’i kung — pronounced chee gung. You may also see listings for Taijiquan, Taiji Quan or T’ai Chi Ch’uan — which literally translate to tai chi martial arts.

Why the variety of spellings?

The different spellings don’t indicate different forms. Instead this variety is related to a simple problem of translation and the compounding fact that the Chinese language consists of pictures and ideograms rather than letters.

To translate Chinese ideograms into words pronounceable by Westerners, scholars devised various methods of using Roman letters to represent the sound of each ideogram. The original system that we, in the States, used was the Wade-Giles system. In this system the word for the ideogram life energy (pronounced chee) is spelled ch’i. However, the Wade-Giles method was problematic, as it wasn’t accepted as an international standard. Instead, each country, including China, adopted its own method of representing Chinese ideograms using Roman letters. What a mess that created.

Tourists needed not only a map but also a phonetic guide to determine whether the big city in south China was pronounced Canton or Guangzhou and whether the big city in the north was called Beijing or Peking. It wasn’t until 1958 that linguists from the People’s Republic of China devised a standard phonetic system to represent Mandarin, the official Chinese dialect. Under this system, called Pinyin, the correct spellings are taiji and qigong. However, the tai chi spelling appears more consistently in event calendars and class listings, and so we are using it in this article.

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photo by Merlin Petroff Photography
Other than a mat, no special equipment, clothing or setting is needed for tai chi, qigong and yoga.
Try for Yourself

Register now for yoga and many sorts of other wellness classes beginning this month at community and private centers throughout Chesapeake Country.

  • Calvert County Parks and Recreation classes begin the week of January 5 at locations north, south and mid-county: www.co.cal.md.us/ccpr.

  • Anne Arundel County Parks and Recreation classes begin in January and February at schools north, south and mid-county: www.aacounty.org. Under Directory, click on Recreation and follow the path to Programs/Activities.

  • Anne Arundel Community College continuing education classes begin late January through June at the main campus in Arnold and satellite sites throughout the county: www.aacc.edu. Click first on Course Selection, then noncredit. Or browse through the on-line course catalogue.

  • Anne Arundel Medical Center wellness classes begin as early as January 6: www.aahs.org. Click on Sign up for Classes and Events.

  • Private classes w/Cheryl Coursey begin in January in Deale:410/867-3425.

  • Try for Free at Chesapeake Yoga Center, January 5-10–Introductory free classes offered through out the week: M at 5:30 (Yoga Intro) & 7:30pm (Slow Yoga); Tu at 5:30pm (Pilates); W at 7:30pm (Yoga Intro) Th 5:30pm (Dance) & 7:30pm (Tai Chi); Sa 9am (Yoga Intro) @ Chesapeake Yoga Center, Old Solomons Island Rd., Solomons. Free; rsvp: 410/326-4421 • [email protected]

  • Try for Free at Natural Healing Wellness Centers: January 5-11–Try free introductory yoga classes both day and evening @ either location: Park Plaza in Severna Park 410/544-6445, or Annapolis St. in West Annapolis. Free; rsvp: 410/626-0045.

  • Try for Free, periodically, at Annapolis Yoga Center: 410/268-3838.

Other Resources

  • Sunrise Yoga at Annapolis City Dock-Spring, summer and fall, Jan Graves instructs an early morning outdoor yoga class: www.jangraves.com.

  • Peaceable Dragon–A consortium of instructors and students of the internal arts, with expertise in a variety of styles of qigong, taijiquan, yoga, meditation and other internal arts, you might have seen them at at First Night Annapolis: www.peaceabledragon.org.

  • World T’ai Chi & QiGong Day– On the last Saturday in April each year (thereby falling at the end of the same month as United Nations World Healing Day and Earth Day) tai chi & qigong groups around the world gather at 10am (each city’s local time) in public parks or the lawns of public buildings: http://chinesehealth.com/wtcqd/wtcqd_search.asp.

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© COPYRIGHT 2003 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
Last updated December 31, 2003 @ 9:12pm.