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Tai chi adds peace to center

Health: Former accountant finds ancient martial art, teaches it at Senior Center for 25 years with h

Posted: January 23, 2012 1:30 a.m.
Updated: January 23, 2012 1:30 a.m.

Allen Wells, 58, performs a kick at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center in Newhall recently.

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The road of life is often paved with some unique and illuminating experiences. Take, for example, what happened three decades ago when a one-time Edison accountant named Sharon met a Harvard graduate and former UCLA math professor named C.C., while at a tai chi studio in Venice.

At the time, Sharon, a divorcee, was in dire search of answers. Among her questions: what’s the meaning of life, and can tai chi help me find inner peace and harmony?

She definitely got more than she was looking for.

Not only did Sharon and C.C. Chang become unified through tai chi camaraderie, they also went on to enjoy a spiritually awakening trip together to India, and ultimately, a trip to the altar.

Besides gaining a husband in tai chi, Sharon Chang discovered the enlightenment she had longed for.

“I owe it all to tai chi,” said the lithe, blue-eyed 66 year old.

Ancient martial art

An ancient martial art based on harmony and the application of integrated body movements and specific stances, tai chi was developed 1,000 years ago in China during the Song Dynasty.

People throughout the world have found it gives them improved health and mental well-being, better concentration and balance,  relief from stress and pain, and enhanced spirituality, Chang said.

According to Sharon Chang — who, along with C.C., has been teaching tai chi at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center for 25 years — no matter what condition one is in, tai chi will change it for the better.

“It gets a hold of you and will not let you go, then everything makes sense and there’s no turning back,” Chang said.
Tai chi gives one a much better attitude and quality of life, she said.

“It’s magical,” she said. “If your blood pressure is low, it will help raise it. If your blood pressure is high, it will help lower it. If you have pain and difficulty in moving, it will help you to feel and move so much better. I see people come here with a cane in the morning and then when they leave, they forget the cane and walk away straightened up with boundless energy and a smile.”

New classes

The open-enrollment period for new classes will be held at the Senior Center Feb. 2-14.

“It’s always exciting to see new faces join us and learn the beauty of tai chi,” Chang said.

Even bringing tai chi to the Senior Center 25 years ago had a “magical” story behind it, Chang said.

“We had already taught it at College of the Canyons, Friendly Valley and various dance studios around town. Then one day, while driving around the valley looking for a new opportunity for presenting tai chi, we suddenly came across this place on Market Street,” she said. “At the time, the then-executive director Mary Blankenship was more than happy to let us introduce tai chi to the senior community, and things just clicked.”

She said the fees collected are always donated back to the nonprofit Senior Center.

“We have always done things this way,” she said. “This is our way of giving back to the community. Plus, tai chi is a miracle and something that should truly be given away.”

Chang admits that while many people begin tai chi with high hopes, a fair number discontinue it.

She advises that everyone new to tai chi give it a serious try.

“Give yourself time, at least three months devoted to it, and then decide if you want to continue,” she said. “Chances are, if a person gives it that committed conscious effort, their decision will pay off in the long run.”

Retired mathematician Perry Smith acknowledged benefiting from tai chi for years, previously while living in Ann Arbor, Mich., and in China where he taught math and logic at the National Taiwan University. Since 2002, Smith has faithfully participated in the Senior Center’s tai chi classes under the Changs’ tutelage. While demonstrating several graceful tai chi moves, he praised its rewards.

“It relaxes me, helps with balance, and helps me to focus on things,” Smith said. “It can be tranquilizing and it helps keep me alert. It can also be used as self-defense, although I have never had to do that.”

Ties that bind

Another bonus of tai chi:  bonding with fellow participants.

“You make great friendships through tai chi,” Chang said. “Some of us come from very different backgrounds, yet there is a real meeting of the minds and spiritual connection in those who have been brought together through tai chi.”

SuzAnn Nelsen, director of supportive service of the SCV Senior Center, said enhanced well-being and friendships are natural tai chi byproducts.

Nelsen, who has become a close, sister-like friend with Sharon Chang through the tai chi classes, has maintained that tai chi devotion through rain, shine and monumental life events.

“Twenty-four years ago, tai chi helped me get through 42 hours of labor when I gave birth to my daughter,” Nelsen recalled. “To this day, it continues to help me emotionally, physically and socially. I have truly developed some great, lifelong friendships thanks to tai chi.”

Nelsen also lauded tai chi’s gift for softening tragic situations.

“Tai chi is extremely effective in stress regulation. It was of immense help to me throughout and after my husband Mark’s cancer battle and death,” she said.

A witness to the benefits

Robin Clough, Senior Center director of volunteers and recreation, shares Nelsen’s fondness for tai chi and the Changs. A longtime member of their classes, Clough has, like Smith, also lived in China and speaks Mandarin.

“Having witnessed the infinite benefits of tai chi while living in China, I was thrilled to discover Sharon Chang’s class at the
Senior Center about 10 years ago and have been an avid practitioner ever since,” Clough said. “The reputation of Sharon’s tai chi form is known throughout California, and her unique analogies in teaching ‘that which cannot be expressed’ continue to enlighten the novice as well as upper-level students.”

Many of Chang’s students have commented that their health and balance have improved, Clough said, noting that studies have proven the remarkable attributes of tai chi.

“I encourage all seniors to take advantage of this ‘moving meditation’ at the Senior Center,” she said.

Living with cancer

While Chang has always believed in tai chi’s “magic,” her greatest proof of its powers arrived last year when she found herself suddenly diagnosed with lung cancer.

Despite the devastating news, ensuing radiation, hair loss and suffering many of the ails that accompany cancer diagnoses,
Chang never stopped teaching or practicing tai chi — or marveling at the benefits of this ancient exercise in harmony.

“I lost my hair. I lost some weight. But I never lost my spirit and attitude, thanks to tai chi — it can get you through anything,” she said. “My own oncologist and radiologist are amazed at how well I have gotten through this.”

If her doctors were shocked last year, they are equally, if not more, impressed now as Chang undergoes radiation for recently detected brain metastases.

“This does not stop me,” Chang said. “Tai chi is a miracle. It can get you through anything. Cancer is not interfering with my quality of life. If anything, it’s a cosmic joke.”

Open enrollment

The classes, held on Tuesdays and Thursdays, are led by veteran tai chi instructors, Sharon Chang (8:30-9:30 a.m.), and her husband, C.C. Chang (3-4 p.m.)

All ages are welcome. Fees: Seniors: $2 per class; Non-seniors: $4 per class. All ages are welcome. Participants are asked to wear loose clothing and flat shoes. The Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center is located at 22900 Market St., Newhall, (661) 259-9444 or (661) 252-3337.

Diana Sevanian is the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center Health Education & Wellness Program director.

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