By Gene Ervin
This article appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on August 25, 2002
It has been over a year since I started my journey to learn this art. I am surprised that it happened at all.
At 65, I have had a hip replacement, smoked cigarettes for years and tended bar at local landmarks like the Catalyst, Tampico Kitchen and the legendary Club Zayante. On paper, I’m an unlikely candidate for something like t’ai chi.
As a former Marine and lifelong athlete, I have intermittently practiced hard styles of martial arts since 1968. All my previous training taught me to ignore pain and push through mental resistance to meet life’s physical challenges.
This is different.
Today, you can see me in the park playing the slow, beautiful moves of Greg Brodsky’s Yang style t’ai chi ch’uan (pronounced tie-jee juen). I’m breathing deeply, at peace with myself and having lots of fun. I no longer smoke and no longer crave it. My energy has doubled, and my strength has increased by at least half. The chronic back pain I suffered for years is gone. The weakness in my leg from the hip replacement is gone. The dull aches that I used to have upon arising every morning are gone. My mind is more clear than it has been in decades.
All because of t’ai chi.
Who would have known that such a subtle art could do so much in such a short time for an old warhorse like me?
It turns out that medical researchers know it. In studies by the American Heart Association, National Institute on Aging, and American Geriatric Society, the practice of t’ai chi by seniors lowered blood pressure, reduced the risk of falling by nearly 50 percent, increased strength, improved balance and flexibility, and sped up people’s reaction time.
“You better believe we were surprised by these results,” said researcher Dr. Deborah Young from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “We expected to see significant changes in the aerobic exercise group and minimal changes in the t’ai chi group.” As it turned out, the t’ai chi group reduced their systolic blood pressure almost as well as did the aerobic exercisers.
Sifu Brodsky’s students (Sifu means teacher) don’t need to measure blood pressure to know about healthy results.
“For the first time, I can feel harmony in my body,” reported a classmate of mine, a woman in her 40s who had tried t’ai chi before, with mixed results.
T’ai chi involves slow, smooth, balanced movements, but it challenges you both mentally and physically. Deep relaxation is one of the benefits, but you can raise a healthy sweat while learning this art.
The focused presence and body awareness it produces are wonderful for the adult mind. The leg strength, balance and physical alignment one achieves are revitalizers. And the cultivation of that mysterious force called qi (pronounced chi), which is mental and physical energy, is a marvelous experience.
Once you feel your qi move, you find yourself in touch with your essential vitality. In describing the personal rejuvenation coming from his practice, another 50-something student states, “I move, stand and even think differently.”
Greg Brodsky, 60, has been doing t’ai chi since 1964 and is the student of two grandmasters: Cheng M’an-Ching and William C. C. Chen.
A martial artist with over 42 years of experience and a former practitioner of Chinese medicine, Brodsky built his art on sound body mechanics and t’ai chi principles. Having experienced considerable bodily damage in his harder training days, topped off by being hit by a runaway car in 1984 while standing at the airport, he teaches in a way that creates spinal alignment, physical power and effectiveness, and mental and physical well being.
Because of his own injuries, the worst of which is a vertebral break in his lower spine, Brodsky developed a method that improves the mechanics and quality of movement regardless of the activity involved. When doctors told him in 1985 that he would require spinal fusion, Brodsky instead developed an approach that was inspired by ideas from Pilates, Alexander, and Feldenkrais, along with basic back stabilization training. He works out 3-5 times a week in a gym doing weight training and aerobics.
While he has to manage his back carefully, an orthopedic specialist observed that he was “doing things that most people can’t do even after the surgery.”
An avid gardener, he digs, weeds and prunes on weekends.
Greg has also taught some of his methods to his 90-year-old mother and 82-year-old mother-in-law, who had become wary of stairs after falling down and breaking her wrist. After a few short lessons, she now takes flights of stairs with confidence.
“You can often see my mom on West Cliff Drive,” Brodsky said, “peacefully standing in meditation as she gazes at the ocean. She uses her martial arts skills to go shopping.”
T’ai chi ch’uan means “supreme ultimate boxing,” but few practitioners actually box. Practiced in China for centuries, the art now enjoys a world-wide following. As a martial art, it employs the principle of neutralizing aggression by yielding to an attack and using the attacker’s own force against him. As a health-building moving meditation (the area most students are interested in), it teaches principles of relaxation and self-cultivation.
Brodsky’s Yang style T’ai Chi involves 60 movements that are practiced in a sequence known as “the form.” Mastering the form is a lifelong undertaking, but in four to eight months you can become familiar enough with the basics to play it on your own, which takes 10 minutes.
Greg teaches on Monday and Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings in Santa Cruz.
He opens his class to new students three times per year: January, May, and September.
For more information, contact Greg Brodsky at 427-1467 or visit http://www.santacruztaichi.com
Gene Ervin is a writer and t’ai chi and qigong student and teacher living in Santa Cruz.