We pulled up to the back alley and parked the car. Several standard brick and metal rimmed buildings enclosed the tiny parking area. Dirty city pigeons pecked at gravel lining randomly placed concrete curbs. There was no one to be found. Where was this place? I knew that my dad taught Tai Chi at the Bathurst and St. Claire centre, and even when I found the logo on an old rusted doorway, I still wasn’t sure we had come to the right place.
After buzzing the intercom, Eryn and I were let in through the back hallway into the main centre where we met up with my dad and his class. Every Friday a group of people gather for a lesson in ancient Taoist motion and philosophy — classes to help people participate in a fun, relaxing and social martial art.
What makes this Tai Chi Chuan group unique is that many of the practitioners are living with a disabling illness or injury. For nearly 20 years as a volunteer instructor with the Taoist Tai Chi Society, my dad has taught people with visual impairments, people with blood diseases or HIV/Aids, people who have had a stroke, cancer, brain damage or epilepsy, or people who have muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis. Many have some form of disability and all are able to partake in the Tai Chi set.
There’s not much he has to do in terms of altering the moves for accessibility. Tai Chi is made up of a set of 108 moves that is intended to be ﬂexible and performed by anyone. For example, there is the “sitting set” where all 108 are performed while seated. If a person has limited movement in a limb, the theory in Chinese philosophy is that it’s important to encourage them to move the limb in a prescribed fashion—regardless of their ability to execute the move. What’s important is that the body gets the idea that there is a limb that needs moving, and if needed to be reminded of how to move it.
So it all comes down to a different style of teaching. The standard method of teaching Tai Chi is all about demonstrating the move three times, then having the class execute the moves you do three times with you, and then asking them to do it three times on their own. Technically, you wouldn’t have to say anything. It’s all done by copying what the instructor is doing.
In order to teach practitioners with a visual impairment, a kinaesthetic approach is used to help describe how the moves are executed. It’s not something you would bother doing if you were sighted, to describe exactly what each part of your hand is doing when rotating a wrist, you’d just do it. So it’s rethinking the teaching, not the moves. If the student agrees, guiding their hands and positioning the body physically is also not a problem.
For some, Tai Chi is recreational — and for others it’s rehabilitating. There are many stories and personal testimonies of people who feel that the exercise has helped them in some way. It’s claimed that the gentle motions and stretches strengthen the body by harnessing ones internal power. It’s a healing martial art that encourages well-being and regeneration at a cellular level. That literally with prolonged practice, one encourages their body and each cell to return to a youthful state. This is one goal anyway. On Friday I met a woman who swears tha she’s overcome much of her paralysis, and while she cannot use her left arm, she’s regained the full use of her right.
Overall, these classes are an opportunity for people to get together and socialize, exercise, and listen to my dad tell funny stories as they perform the set. Which was primarily why we decided to visit for the day. I recently found out that pictures of Eryn make routine rounds during the snack break. The class has watched her grow over the past year, and I thought it would be a fun outing for everyone if they could meet her in person. She had a blast crawling around and beeping scooter horns. And babies just have this way of making everyone smile.