Taoist Tai Chi enthusiasts cite its positive effect on strength, flexibility, balance and more. It has followers of all ages worldwide and around the corner.
By PAMELA GRINER LEAVY
Published October 8, 2004
CLEARWATER - It's never too late to strengthen one's body, mind and spirit, Ginny Mars says.
Mars, 69, of Clearwater espouses and lives the Taoist Tai Chi Society of Clearwater's exercise philosophy of calmness and peace of mind.
Fourteen years ago, suffering from a painful sciatic nerve, compressed discs in her back and with one leg shorter than the other, Mars turned to the ancient Chinese exercise system.
Now, along with other enthusiasts at the Taoist Tai Chi Society in Clearwater, Mars claims the exercises improve strength and flexibility, correct balance, add lost height through stretching, and help calm frazzled nerves.
"Move hands like clouds" and "grasp bird's tail" rank among the more than 100 movements used in the gentle exercises that are said to provide an impact-free aerobic workout. Considered endurance exercise, tai chi claims to be different from other exercise methods in that it requires the use of almost 600 muscles.
Within six months of starting tai chi, Mars' pain lifted and her legs were of the same length, she said. A secretary at Oak Grove Middle School in Clearwater, Mars recalls her co-workers commenting on her calmer demeanor.
"I know I need to do this for the rest of my life," she said. "I thought I was too old at 55 to exercise, and I never liked athletics. This is different. You work at your own speed. There's no pressure to keep up with the rest of the group."
While tai chi appeals to all ages, in 1996 the National Institute on Aging credited what it called "a graceful form of martial arts" with making elderly people less likely to fall and break brittle bones.
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Blink and you might miss the Taoist Tai Chi Society of Clearwater, sandwiched between a natural foods market and a health center in a strip shopping center on Cleveland Street.
Once inside and away from traffic noise, silence and the faint scent of Chinese herbal tea await visitors. Volunteers, who also take classes, serve as staff. And don't look for monks dressed in robes performing intricate movements, or even people clad in spandex exercise togs. Instead, knee-length shorts, sweat pants and t-shirts, some emblazoned with the words "year of the monkey," which 2004 is, serve as exercise garb for people taking classes throughout the day and evening, seven days a week. Classes range from beginning, continuing and review to health recovery and chanting-meditation.
Tai chi participants in Clearwater join a community that operates across the world, with tai chi taking place in areas as diverse as Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and Luxembourg Gardens in Paris.
The Tai Chi Society of Clearwater is a branch of the nonprofit Taoist Tai Chi Society of the USA, which incorporated as a national charitable organization in 1989. A branch also operates in St. Petersburg. The Taoist Tai Chi Society of the USA is part of the International Taoist Tai Chi Society, founded by Master Moy Lin-Shin of China, who died in 1998.
Volunteer staff members also offer classes at satellite locations in Dunedin, Crystal Beach and the Trinity area in north Pinellas.
Nancy Heckert, 80, of Dunedin is a volunteer staff member and leads seated tai chi classes for retarded adults at UPARC in Clearwater. Heckert taught registered nursing classes at Manatee Community College before retiring in 1998.
The UPARC tai chi students range from teens to people in their 40s. Heckert cites a deaf student as being one of the best tai chi students in the class.
She sees the social aspect of tai chi is as important for these students as it is for the participants at the Tai Chi Society of Clearwater, where students share tea breaks and carpool to classes.
"I think I'm a grandmother figure to them," Heckert said of the UPARC students. "We stop after we do the exercises and we talk about the hurricanes and other things."
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Taoist Tai Chi Society in Clearwater, a branch of the Taoist Tai Chi Society of the USA