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Going slowly with the flow

October 21, 2002|Hilary E. MacGregor | Times Staff Writer

At nearly six months pregnant, my waist was thickening fast and my fitness options were narrowing even faster. My doctor recommended exercise but advised low-impact workouts such as hiking, swimming and yoga. I craved variety and needed an energy boost, so I signed up for a class in tai chi chuan, the ancient Chinese system of calisthenics and self-defense.

The Chinese say that whoever practices tai chi regularly will gain the pliability of a child, the vitality of a lumberjack and the peace of mind of a sage. Benefits are said to range from improved posture, circulation, metabolism and digestion to accelerated healing of disease and infection. I definitely needed most of those.

Like most Chinese martial arts, tai chi is taught through a private oral tradition, from master to disciple. Talent, diligence and correct instruction all are essential ingredients for advancement in tai chi. Picking a good teacher is the most important of the three. I contacted hospitals, YMCAs and community colleges that offer tai chi, but I found my master at the West Side Academy of Dance in Santa Monica.

Terence Pang-Yen Dunn is the senior student of a real tai chi master, with 30 years of training. Dunn, 48, has taught tai chi to ballerinas and was brought in by Laker Coach Phil Jackson to teach tai chi to Kobe, Shaq and the rest of the team during the 2000-01 season. He has also worked with heart patients at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, using tai chi to help relieve pain and speed recovery after surgery. His instructional videos on tai chi have sold more than 1 million copies. I showed up at Studio 7 at the West Side Academy of Dance on a recent Tuesday night dressed in loose sweats and with bare feet. There were six others in my class. The class was mixed-level; the most experienced student had practiced tai chi for a decade, the least experienced student for seven months. My husband and I were complete novices.

The class began with warmups. For the next two hours, I would follow Dunn with my eyes and echo his graceful balletic movements with my limbs. A handsome, lanky man with lively eyes, I could imagine him launching himself through the window of the ballet studio and effortlessly taking down opponents, like a hero in a Hong Kong martial arts film.

We moved slowly as Asian-sounding music played in the background, and for the duration of the class the ballet studio was transformed into a Chinese temple. "Tai chi movement is circular and continuous," Dunn said as we swayed gently, flowing back and forth, our wrists swinging limply, our weight transferring from one leg to the other.

These warm-up exercises focused on opening up our hips and shoulders. As we moved, Dunn explained some of the cardinal principles of tai chi that any beginner must master. He reminded us to balance our weight fully onto each leg, alternating the movement of yang with the stillness of yin. He told us to turn at the waist to control all of our movement. He exhorted us to keep our spines straight and erect. And he kept an eye on our hands swinging back and forth, helping us to release tension in our arms so we had "beautiful lady's wrists." These loose wrists, he explained, would expand suppleness to our joints so that eventually the movement of our entire body would flow like "a string of pearls."

After warmups we lined up at one end of the room and began a slow-motion walk across the floor. At the end of each step we twirled our feet first to the right, then left, moving so slowly it was surreal to watch and to do. Complete relaxation, Dunn told us, is another principle that a beginner must master.

"The masters walk so slowly it looks like they are not even moving," Dunn said. "The last one to the end is the winner. The psychic field you generate through moving slowly is magnetic."

It was difficult to move at this reduced speed. But it also felt so soothing to slow down. I thought of my high-speed L.A. life. Always, I am running, rushing, thinking of what I must do next. Here I focused my attention inward, concentrating all my energy on going "slower than a sand dune."

Next we began to do some of the actual tai chi forms. Dunn explained the history and benefits as we moved.

The names of our postures sounded poetic and exotic: "monk looking at the moon," "white crane spreads wings," "playing the guitar," "picking up needle on sea bottom" and "silk weaver." They also offered clues as to what the forms were supposed to look like.

We held these simple postures, often resting back on one leg so long I began to tremble.

Dunn said more experienced practitioners will hold a pose for five minutes. A master might hold a single pose for 40 minutes. Dunn moved through the room fixing our alignment -- the way our feet were planted, the direction our hips faced, the angle of our arms. These positions, he said, are the foundations, or roots.

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