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Is Tai Chi the answer to my problems?

Curt Anthon leading a Tai Chi class at the Hudson Area Library
Ralph Gardner Jr.
Curt Anthon leading a Tai Chi class at the Hudson Area Library

Once you reach a certain age, whether retired or still gainfully employed, it seems to me that one responsibility dwarfs all others. That’s to stay healthy, to the extent that exalted state remains under our control.

I admit that I don’t always, or even routinely, practice what I preach. I’ve been led to believe, thanks to both family members and empirical blood work, that I consume far too much sugar. I also continue to cling to the conceit that if red meat wasn’t meant to be a staple of our diets it wouldn’t taste so good, or provide such a focused source of protein. And I don’t need anybody to tell me that alcohol’s a sophisticated poison delivery system. But I enjoy a nightly drink or two, nonetheless.

However, there is one arena in which I’m pulling my weight, often quite literally. I exercise daily. My routine started not as a matter of choice but from necessity. For years I worked in bed. That wasn’t some sort of affectation. Hired to churn out five columns a week for the Wall Street Journal, I quickly came to realize that the only way to accomplish the feat was to score a glass of orange juice and a cup of coffee, close the bedroom door behind me and produce a story by mid-morning. That allowed the rest of the day for reporting and paying occasional visits to the office.

I didn’t appreciate that my daily habit came at a price until I started to experience back pain and occasional spasms in recent years. A neurologist diagnosed age-related arthritis – in precisely the spot where I slouched between pillow and mattress as I pursued my journalistic beat – and prescribed physical therapy.

My excellent therapist, after describing me as stiff – I suspect it was a polite way of saying inelastic, rigid, benumbed, ossified – created a daily half-hour stretching regimen for me.

My problems haven’t vanished completely but I have noticed that entering and exiting cars and taxis aren’t the challenge they once were. Yet I’ve been made to understand, through the media as well as osmosis, that I can’t rest on my laurels. The human body, like my thus far dependable Honda CR-V, has only so many miles left on its engine and chassis. To make the most of them requires regular tune-ups.

Stretching isn’t sufficient. Apparently, weight training is required to prevent muscles from atrophying. Coordination is also at risk. I haven’t started lifting weights or doing pull ups but I have lately taken baby, or should I say low-impact, steps to forestall falling and becoming a burden to myself or others.

It started when I listened to a recent segment on NPR about the benefits of Tai Chi, the ancient Chinese mind-body practice centered around a series of slow-motion martial arts moves. It’s sometimes described as “meditation in motion.” I wasn’t unfamiliar with Tai Chi, not that I’d ever thought I’d become a student.

Back in the days when New York City was a graffiti-riddled purgatory, SoHo was a transitional neighborhood and CBGB’s was having a moment, I landed an unlikely job as a spokesman for the Department of Correction.

The headquarters was at 100 Centre Street, a daunting Depression-era building that exited onto Columbus Park and Chinatown. There, most mornings weather permitting, older local residents could be found performing Tai Chi. They seemed to be leaderless yet their motions so graceful and effortless, despite their age, that it was easy to dismiss their practice as less substance than superstition.

I’m no longer under that illusion now that I’ve attempted Tai Chi myself. After listening to that NPR story and recalling the scene in Chinatown decades ago – my hunch is that the elders, now my age, are still out there – I went online and searched for local Tai Chi classes.

I quickly found one at the Hudson, NY library. Led by Curt Anthon, a Tai Chi and yoga instructor, it meets for an hour Tuesday mornings through March 26th. It’s free, no registration is required and, if you’re anything like me and feel ridiculous performing exercise in public, let alone an ancient discipline where you’re a novice, you can also join on Zoom.

After finding it a challenge to follow Curt’s instructions during my first remote session I buried my pride and showed up in person the following week. Let’s just say that the experience renewed my respect for those ancients I once watched performing Tai Chi in Chinatown.

I introduced myself to the instructor after class and we bonded over “House of Ninjas,” a new Netflix series about a dysfunctional family of martial arts savants. Our exchange proved useful the following week because I realized that the best way to mimic Curt’s graceful, flowing moves was to make believe that I was a kung fu apprentice in a Bruce Lee or Quentin Tarantino movie.

I’m not suggesting I’ve gotten the hang of it or ever will, let alone by the time classes end. But I noticed something striking as soon as I got home. Perhaps it was just coincidence, but my chronic back pain was gone. At least for now. The challenge will be to keep performing tai chi when there’s no instructor to encourage me. I’m not brazen enough to believe I’m ready to pay an early morning visit to Chinatown and slip into a class with the masters.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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