Madison HeightsJuly 26, 2012
Madison Heights brings tai chi to younger crowd
By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer
MADISON HEIGHTS — The art of tai chi chuan, or “grand ultimate fist form” — more commonly known as tai chi — is stereotyped in the West as something for older people, but in truth it’s just as relevant to teens and young adults.
Now an accelerated track is coming to Madison Heights this fall for the 14-30 crowd. Younger students can learn the forms of tai chi at a faster pace, and if they stick with it, they can reach international competitive standards of this soon-to-be Olympic sport.
But even at a non-competitive level, the benefits are clear.
Tai chi sharpens the mind, improving one’s ability to relax and focus under pressure — a useful skill for test-taking or conflict resolution. It’s a powerful form of self-defense, should the need ever arise, and it uses natural movements of the body to reverse the effects of everyday stress. Its healing power is so great, in fact, that the medical community even incorporates tai chi into rehabilitation programs.
Stephen Britt knows its potential. He was born with the incredibly rare immune system disorder called Weber-Christian disease, where the body identifies its own tissue as alien matter and starts destroying it, wrecking muscle, fat and nerve tissue and leaving the body in an emaciated state.
It could’ve crippled him for life. But then, as a teen growing up in 1970s Toronto, his friends in the Chinese community told him that the family that created the Wu style of tai chi was expanding from Hong Kong to Toronto, and he ought to study with them.
“Within a couple of years, all of my health challenges had pretty much reversed,” Britt said. “If you go through something like that, where you have this serious challenge you just can’t seem to get past, and then you find something that takes it off your back, well, you become dedicated to it.”
Britt was the first Western student to study tai chi under the Wu family in North America, and he stuck with it, training with the third-, fourth- and fifth-generations of the family for 30 consecutive years, in Toronto and abroad in Southeast Asia.
Now he goes by the title “sifu” — Chinese for “teacher” — and is the only lineage holder in North America from the Wu family. He is also the technical director of the Michigan Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan & Chi Kung Institute.
In learning tai chi, Britt’s students study three areas: health, meditation and martial arts. All three are interconnected.
The health aspect begins with curing the physical symptoms of stress damage, which can include tension, poor circulation, shallow breathing, a knotted stomach, digestive issues and more. To boost and open one’s circulation, students move through a series of 108 postures, referred to as the “form” or “chuan.”
“These forms are practiced slowly to allow relaxation in the musculature and effective stretching,” Britt said. “The breath is performed abdominally, focusing on deep and full breathing to establish full inhalation and exhalation.
“As a result, blood flow improves, the muscles relax and breath opens,” he continued. “The rotations and circular movements of the form allow the joints of the body to open in order to restore the natural range of motion to all of the body’s joints.”
As such, there’s no overt stretching or hyperextension of the joints. Tai chi treats every part of the body evenly, exercise that’s called “bilaterally symmetrical,” equal on the left and right sides for perfect formation.
The 108 postures take several months to learn and roughly 25 minutes to complete from start to finish. Doing the full set improves your ability to focus, as you have to concentrate in order to remember which form comes next and how to coordinate the movements. This is the meditative aspect.
Once the mind and body are ready, one is fully capable of learning the martial arts. Tai chi is a “soft” form of self-defense, as opposed to “hard” — it teaches people to absorb the impact of a hard hit and flow with the blow, yielding to incoming force using softness to neutralize it, rather than beating down brute force with brute force.
“It’s based on the study of infants,” Britt said. “It was noticed infants could generate a lot of power, but their muscles remain soft and relaxed. Like if you hold a baby, he can grab your fingers and lift himself straight out of bed, but if you shake his arms, they’re very soft. So the question is, how do we go from this soft state to an adult state, where we can be harmed because of tension built up in the body?”
The key is relaxation under stress, which requires a strong background in concentration — hence improving one’s focus through the forms. It provides the sensitivity of mind to overcome an aggressive opponent, but it also provides the mental acuity to perform well in all other aspects of life, which makes it a valuable skill for people of all ages, including the young.
In Madison Heights, tai chi classes have been offered to all age groups for years, but the new class starting Sept. 4 marks the first class dedicated solely to a younger crowd. As they can remember the forms more easily, the class can move at a faster pace.
The syllabus for tai chi includes learning the hand form; two-person training, referred to as “pushing-hands”; individual meditation posture training, referred to as “chi-kung”; weapon forms, including sword and broadsword; and eventually higher level training to prepare a student even for the level of international competition, Britt said.
Madison Heights Deputy City Manager Ben Myers has been studying tai chi under Britt to stay sharp and in good shape. No stranger to martial arts, Myers said he has only scratched the surface with tai chi so far, with much refinement to be learned in the forms. But already he sees how the art can benefit younger students.
“The ability to focus and concentrate has a positive benefit for kids as they go through school and cope with the challenges of life,” Myers said. “And I have to think that to have knowledge of proven methods of relaxation at an early age as you go into adulthood could be valuable in preventing the years of damage you get from stress. You can avoid it occurring in the first place, if you’re able to do that.”
The new tai chi class for ages 14-30 will be in the lower level of Madison Heights City Hall, 300 W. 13 Mile, from 6-7:15 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays starting Sept. 4. New students can join at any time; one-on-one instructors will get them up to speed.
The rate is $30 a month for full-time students, $60 a month for everyone else. The discounted rate for Madison Heights residents is $25 for full-time students, $55 for everyone else. To arrange a family discount, call Britt at (248) 764-0863. For more information about the city’s tai chi offerings, call (248) 589-2294.
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