The next yoga? Franklin County residents celebrate World Tai Chi Day

  • Deborah Yaffee leads a tai chi class at the Greenfield YMCA. Yaffee, who took up tai chi about eight years ago, says she was blown away by “how people could start tai chi, and have the form be simple enough and effective enough so that people stay with it right away.” Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Deborah Yaffee’€™s gentle motions calm and balance her students in a tai chi class at the Greenfield YMCA. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Participants follow the instructor’s movements in a tai chi class at the Greenfield YMCA. Tai chi can help alleviate symptoms of arthritis by developing muscle strength, improve cognitive function and offer a sense of community by facilitating social interactions. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Deborah Yaffee’€™s gentle motions calm and balance her students in a tai chi class at the Greenfield YMCA. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Deborah Yaffee leads a tai chi class at the Greenfield YMCA. Yaffee says her students “will get health benefits, they will feel great, their self-esteem will go up (and) they won’t feel overwhelmed.” Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Participants follow the instructor’s movements in a tai chi class at the Greenfield YMCA. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 4/26/2019 2:11:26 PM

Tai chi may be the next yoga — or at least a low-impact, standing-up alternative.

The Chinese-founded practice intertwining exercise and meditation has spread across Franklin County, and is being offered in Greenfield, Shelburne Falls, Heath, Ashfield and Leverett locations.

Local instructor Deborah Yaffee, 65, said tai chi offers “busy people” a chance to meditate and exercise at once. Tai chi can be practiced by individuals of all levels of experience who are looking to improve both their physical and emotional health.

“They will get health benefits, they will feel great, their self-esteem will go up, they won’t feel overwhelmed,” Yaffee said.

Saturday is World Tai Chi Day, and in its honor, Yaffee is offering a two-day workshop in Shelburne Falls for those who seek teaching qualifications or simply want to practice for an extended period.

For the love of spreading good health

While Yaffee had practiced yoga in the past, she took up tai chi about eight years ago partly because the exercise is done upright.

“When I was younger, I really liked yoga, and I liked to stretch a lot and everything,” Yaffee said. “For myself personally, I just don’t want to go up and down on the floor.”

Yaffee first discovered tai chi in the 1970s, when it was featured in the movie “Hair,” she said. However, she didn’t pick it up until 2011, when she was reintroduced to the exercise by Dr. Paul Lam, a physician and renowned tai chi teacher based in Australia. According to Yaffee, Lam’s tai chi form is “simple, safe and effective,” and accessible to anyone.

“I was so blown away by the brilliance of Dr. Lam’s vision,” Yaffee said. “How people could start tai chi, and have the form be simple enough and effective enough so that people stay with it right away.”

A short time later, Yaffee became qualified as a tai chi instructor and started teaching at the Greenfield YMCA and Shelburne Fall Yoga Center several times a week.

Yaffee’s enthusiasm was rewarded a couple years ago when she was offered the title of senior trainer by Dr. Lam’s Tai Chi for Health Institute. While a master trainer, as designated by the institute, is required to train instructors, Yaffee will be present at the workshop to provide assistance.

Since Yaffee rediscovered tai chi, she has persuaded about eight students to become instructors, she said. Among Yaffee’s students-turned-instructors is Lois Bascom of Shelburne Falls. Bascom, 78, was introduced to tai chi nine years ago when she began taking Yaffee’s classes at Shelburne Senior Center.

She admitted to having a “ho hum attitude” toward tai chi at first, attending classes only intermittently. However, after Bascom was told she would need a partial knee replacement, she began taking classes more regularly. After a year, her doctor told her she no longer needed the surgery.

Bascom is surprised to find herself teaching tai chi at this stage in her life, she said.

“I never guessed that I would be doing anything like this at all,” Bascom said. “I never was athletic, never did much formal exercise or anything. This is just an amazing surprise that I can teach it.”

Tangible results

Bascom finds satisfaction in teaching tai chi, she said, as she is able to share her knowledge and give her students tools to improve their health. She said results in some cases are significant.

One student with back issues reported feeling them improve soon after beginning tai chi, for example. Another person, who was unable to stand upon first taking tai chi classes, was able to stand for part of the class after a while. Others come to class feeling anxious, and say the class helps alleviate worries they have.

“It’s people’s experiences like that that kept me going and teaching,” Bascom said.

The benefits of tai chi are wide-ranging: physical, cognitive and emotional, according to Baystate Medical Practices Sports and Exercise Medicine Medical Director Darius Greenbacher. The exercise improves strength, balance and coordination, yet is low-impact and safe to practice.

Tai chi can also help alleviate symptoms of arthritis by developing muscle strength, he said. And in terms of mental health, he said tai chi requires some memorization so it can improve cognitive function. Finally, tai chi is often practiced in groups, so it facilitates social interactions and offers a sense of community, which Greenbacher said has clear health benefits.

While the health benefits of tai chi are found in many other exercises, Greenbacher called it a “wonderful practice,” adding that “people can benefit hugely” from participating.

This month, on a warm Tuesday morning, roughly 15 class members filled a Greenfield YMCA exercise studio for Yaffee’s weekly class. Members ranged in age, gender and experience; some were regulars, others were trying the exercise for the first time.

When the class began, attendees were asked to walk around the room and smile at one another, which seemed to encourage attendees to feel more at ease with one another.

Halfway through the class, Yaffee asked a few attendees to share their personal experiences with tai chi. One new member, Joe Parzych, said he had a background in judo and sought to return to practicing martial arts. Joe Kosewicz, a nurse, personal trainer and yoga instructor, also shared his story, saying he became a tai chi teacher roughly a year ago after the practice helped him recover from a back injury. For Kosewicz, who called tai chi “meditation in motion,” the exercise also targets mental health, and can help prevent certain illnesses.

“This helps keep people out of the emergency room, this helps keep people out of the doctor’s office. It’s about preventative care,” Kosewicz said.

Jacqueline Lejeune began taking Yaffee’s tai chi classes several years ago and has since become a regular attendee. She said practicing tai chi is crucial to her health.

“It just makes me feel so good,” Lejeune said.

Maryanne Gallagher is a more recent student, having started in classes in January. For Gallagher, tai chi has helped her become present in and aware of her body.

“It’s an opportunity to just be,” Gallagher said. “To just breathe.”

Bascom teaches classes four days a week, volunteering her time to do so. Her 45-minute classes are held Monday, 8:30 a.m. at Shelburne Senior Center; Monday, 10 a.m. at Heath Senior Center; Tuesday, 10:30 a.m. at Shelburne’s Trinity Episcopal Church; and Thursday, 9 a.m. at Shelburne Senior Center.

Yaffee’s weekly class schedule is Tuesday, 10 to 10:55 a.m. at the Greenfield YMCA; Wednesdays 7:30 to 8:15 a.m. at the Shelburne Falls Yoga Studio and 9:30 to 10:15 a.m. at Ashfield Congregational Church; and Thursday, 9:30 to 10:15 a.m. at the Greenfield YMCA.

For more information about upcoming classes or events, contact Yaffee at 413-625-2800 or email eztaichiforhealth@gmail.com.

Grace Bird started working at the Greenfield Recorder this year covering West County. She can be reached at gbird@recorder.com or 413-772-0261 ext. 280.


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