Health & Harmony: Classes lend thoughtfulness to body movements

Gary Tong instructs a tai chi class at A Touch of Chi in Delray Beach. Tong started his discipline more than 30 years ago with Shaolin Kung Fu under the guidance of Grandmaster Alan Lee. He later discovered tai chi chuan and chi kung (qigong), studying with Dr. John Chang of Baltimore. He also studied and taught dahn yoga, brain respiration and many other forms of qigong. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

By Lona O'Connor

In a morning tai chi class in Delray Beach, a group of students follow their sifu, or teacher, Gary Tong, through a tai chi form, a series of motions that use every part of the body, including wrists, ankles, knees and hips.
    The movements suggest statues, warmed by the morning sun, coming to life. The phrase tai chi chuan means “supreme ultimate fist,” a nod to its ancient connection to martial arts in China. The word chi is usually translated as cosmic energy, a primal force that practitioners learn to rouse and move through their bodies.
    “It is meditation in movement,” Tong tells them. “All movement starts from stillness of mind, body and breath.”
    When Jack Sotsky of Lake Worth and the other students finish their form, they stand still, eyes closed, knees and arms slightly bent.
    “Jack is like a tree rooted to the ground,” says Tong. “His mind goes all the way to the ground.”
    Tai chi’s twin discipline is qigong, a breathing technique that is choreographed with the movements, which have fanciful names like “repulse the monkey” and “hold the beak,” or suggesting many animals — snake, rooster, horse, white crane. Other movements suggest actions of humans or nature itself: “fair lady works the shuttle” and “cloud hands.” There are also martial arts terms like “parry.”
    According to the Chinese system of medicine, chi can be blocked or weakened if it is not systematically and regularly circulated. When chi is flowing, the practitioner is relaxed, alert, balanced and healthy. The forms also help with coordination and joint mobility.
    Tong was a telecommuni-cations engineer who also studied Shaolin Kung Fu, tai chi and qigong for 30 years. He is nationally certified in massage therapy and Oriental bodywork.
    Several of his students have studied with him for nearly a decade.
    “I’ve never seen anybody like him,” said Bob Hersey. “I’ve worked with my body all my life. You learn how to move, but not how to walk.”
    Tong teaches them how to walk thoughtfully. When they shift their weight to one leg, it is “full,” the other leg is “empty.”
    This is not your ordinary gym-rat type of exercise. The goal is to have mind, body and spirit working in harmony with each other, with the sky above and the earth below.
    “It takes a long time to internalize it,” said Sotsky who started tai chi with Tong eight or nine years ago when Tong taught in Sotsky’s development.
    “It’s all gain and no pain,” said Deana Kletzel of Boynton Beach.
    Tong smiles.
    “They bring the wisdom to me,” he says.
    Lynda Varney has been taking Tong’s classes for a few weeks and practices the forms and the breathing at home every day. She is also watching videos and reading up on tai chi.
    “I play tennis and golf, I do weight lifting, so I wanted to balance that out with a softer, more gentle activity, said Varney, 54, who lives in Lake Worth. “You tone your muscles with tai chi, you gain more balance and the spiritual aspect can’t be denied. I’m really loving it.”
    As for changes, she says,  “Yesterday, I was on my way into some store, and some gentleman out of the blue said, ‘You look very healthy.’ You know, I feel healthy, more of a lightness. So thank you, it’s the tai chi.”

    For more information about tai chi classes and a free sunrise meditation on World Tai Chi and Qi Gong Day (Sept. 13), visit
    Tai chi classes also are offered at the Boynton Beach Senior Center, 1021 S. Federal Highway. For information, call 742-6570.

Lona O’Connor  has a lifelong interest in health and healthy living. Send column ideas to

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