Twenty years ago, tai chi was not popular in East Texas. It was more known in San Francisco and the northern California areas. People knew about it in Texas, but it was not on the top of their mind as a form of exercise.
Back then the majority of people in a room would raise their hand when Tyler tai chi Instructor Brandon Jones would begin speeches by asking if anyone had never heard of tai chi.
Two decades ago, Jeane Brown, of Tyler, saw a newspaper announcement that Jones was starting a tai chi class.
She went and saw Jones demonstrate tai chi.
“It was very, very different from anything I had ever seen," she recalled recently. "It was like somebody on stage doing a ballet. It was so smooth and so beautiful it was unbelievable.”
Over the years, tai chi has become more popular as a healthy exercise and was synergized with the medical community as a lot of physical therapists, neurologists and other health professionals prescribed tai chi.
Jones said, “Now I go into a room and say have you ever heard of tai chi and everybody raises their hands. It’s come a long way.”
Mrs. Brown had heard tai chi is good for balance and wanted to improve her balance. She and her husband, Jack, were among the original members of the first tai chi class Jones started at the East Texas Medical Center’s Olympic Center in February 1998.
Jones began the class in coordination with the hospital upon the urging, encouragement and requests of physicians, nurses and others in the community.
“Neither of us (ETMC nor the instructor) knew it would be here 20 years later,” Jones said. On the class‘s 20th anniversary this February, Jones said, “I’m ready to keep it going.”
In the beginning, the class met at 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, but some class members wanted it in the early morning before they went to work. A year later the class moved to 6:30 a.m. and still meets at 6:30 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays in the health enhancement center in the basement of ETMC’s Olympic Center.
Four years ago, the tai chi class spawned a qi gong class, a stationary form of tai chi, that meets at 6:30 a.m. Mondays also in the Olympic Center basement. Slightly more than a year ago Jones launched another tai chi class at 10:45 a.m. Mondays and Wednesdays on the Olympic Center gym floor for people who do not want to come to the early classes. All of the classes are open to anyone who is an Olympic Center member.
Twenty years after the Browns joined the first tai chi class, it is still on the couple’s calendar today and one of the things they do twice a week.
“It helps with balance a lot," Mrs. Brown, a retired nurse, said. "I can’t imagine taking tai chi from anybody else.”
She said class members have grown very close and are a very caring group.
Her husband, Jack, a retired petroleum engineer, said, “There are so many advantages to tai chi. There are so many ways it helps. It‘s good for the body.”
He said it teaches deep breathing, is slow and involves moving constantly.
“Try it, you’ll like it," he said.
Jan Knowles, another original member of that first tai chi class who still participates after 20 years, had not taken tai chi before.
“I think people were very unaware of all its benefits back then," she said. "I know I was. I was very curious and wanted to try it.”
Mrs. Knowles quickly learned tai chi is a very controlled, slow moving form of exercise that was quite a contrast to the fast-paced step aerobics class she was in at the time.
Now, Mrs. Knowles said tai chi is a very important part of her fitness routine.
“I think tai chi has a lot of health benefits. It helps your joints, your balance, muscles, flexibility and strength,” Mrs. Knowles said, citing in particular improved balance and flexibility. “It keeps me moving and keeps me going. It is good for mental health too because (exercisers) have to remember the various tai chi forms.”
Seeing results from of the tai chi class has kept her participating, said Mrs. Knowles, who is a homemaker, mother, grandmother and volunteer.
“It’s something I enjoy doing," Mrs. Knowles said. "My doctors tell me to continue with tai chi. I highly recommend it for anybody.”
Tai chi is a perfect way to exercise the body that is gentle to the joints, Jones said. He was introduced to tai chi as a child during a summer camp while growing up in Marshall.
In his classes, participants learn many various tai chi postures and movements, a lot of them named after nature. For example, there are movements named “hands through the waterfall,” “turning the clouds” and “scattering the stars.”
The movements often mimic the name. For instance, the “scattering the stars” movement involves lifting a hand above the head and trailing it across the sky, letting that hand fall and then doing the other hand.
“It teaches you proper waist turn, how to position your elbows, wrists and knees,” Jones said. “Once you learn postures individually, you put them together, almost like a synchronized dance.”
Most people seek tai chi for better balance and stress relief, Jones said.
“It is very slow movement," she said. "It helps you become mindful of your balance. When you feel like you are off balance, it teaches your body how to adjust so you don’t fall. It teaches you what it feels like when you are about to fall so you can stop it.”
When people move slowly, they have more muscle control and it allows their muscles to develop slowly and safely and balanced, Jones said.
“You become very mindful of your weight shift, your weight distribution," he said. "It’s a very mindful type of exercise.“
Jones said because it involves deep breathing, it is often called moving meditation.
"You are thinking about each move as you do it so you forget what’s going on around you and you are able to focus, which in turn does give you some stress relief," Jones said. "You are not thinking about problems at home or at work.”
Teaching the class 20 years, Jones said, “has taught me a lot as far as understanding the human body and the human mind.”
Jones said he has become more patient and more understanding when people say they have pain. In those cases, he suggests adaptations or alternative exercises.