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The Benefits of T’ai Chi: A Q&A with Instructor Hiromi Johnson

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The Benefits of T’ai Chi: A Q&A with Instructor Hiromi Johnson

Tokyo native Hiromi Johnson teaches T'ai Chi for all levels every Monday at noon in a class co-sponsored by CSC and the Compassionate Care Initiative. This martial art is characterized by soft, slow flowing movements of the torso and arms coordinated with weight shifts and steps. T'ai Chi emphasizes relaxation and is a form of meditation in motion that improves balance and muscle tone and promotes stress reduction. CSC student intern Yumna Rahman sat down with Hiromi to ask more about how the contemplative practice of T’ai Chi affects her own life and benefits her students. 

Q. How did you start T’ai Chi?
I had two open-knee surgeries on both my knees—one when I was 12 and another at 18—after which I couldn’t bend or stretch my legs at all. Physical therapy was hard to keep up because the hospital was an hour and half away. My parents were worried because, in Japan, if you can’t sit seiza, which is when you fold your legs, it’s hard to get married! Eventually, they found somebody who suggested Tai Chi Ch’i Kung, and when I was 24, I started with a teacher in my neighborhood. I saw significant changes after practicing with her for a year and a half. I could lift and stand on my legs, and I started to love T’ai Chi!

However, my neighborhood teacher suddenly disappeared one day without notice, and I was left alone. So I bought a book, and until I was 33, I just practiced with a book. I met my first real T’ai Chi teacher in a health restaurant in the center of Tokyo. I ordered lunch, and when he served me food, he looked at my legs and said T’ai Chi might do me some good. Of course, I had been looking for a teacher, so I readily agreed. To meet him on temple grounds and practice together, I had to arrive at six in the morning, and it took an hour and a half and three trains to get there. But, I was determined to do it, and after one year, he introduced me to his teacher, and I learned with him until I left Japan in 1998. 
 
Q. How has T’ai Chi affected your life?
Physically, it affected me a lot. But, mentally, I also got much stronger. Ever since elementary school, I had never been able to handle physical exercise. I was always on the bleachers, watching other people, and I fainted often. Teachers would discourage me often. When I started T’ai Chi and became trained, I got more stamina and endurance and that boosted my confidence. In every way, T’ai Chi gave me a sanctuary, where I could be quiet and accept myself for who I am. Each time I practice, I still discover something new about myself! It’s a different experience if you practice both alone and in a group because, with a group of people, moving in unison does something special. It cultivates camaraderie and everyone shares peace and friendship.
 
Q. What motivated you to start teaching T’ai Chi?
I believe this is my destiny. I never imagined teaching T’ai Chi when I moved here. I just wanted to practice. But, one day, there was a T’ai Chi event in a park where people would gather and see what other people’s forms were like. My husband encouraged me to go. After I did a part of T’ai Chi, 10 people came up to me and wanted to learn the form. They invited me to teach at their place, and that’s how it started. It was incredible. A girl who used to faint and couldn’t participate in physical exercise classes now has stamina, flexibility, mobility, and confidence. I realized I wanted to share those many benefits with the community.
 
I did have to adapt my teaching style over the years, however. I learned that the oriental way of teaching doesn’t work in the states because people want to hear explanations, be touched, and progress very quickly. I had to think about how to explain every inch of movement in English, especially as English is not my mother tongue. It’s not like that in Japan. The traditional way of learning is to just follow the teacher, no questions asked. For example, I was with my last teacher for a year and seven months before he talked to me! Over the course of the year, he was simply checking to see if I was really serious about learning. When I finally learned the whole 100-step form, he greeted me for the first time. There’s a Chinese proverb about this: It takes three years for a student to find a teacher and three years for the teacher to decide whether he or she will accept a student.” For me it took a lot longer!
 
Q. How do you structure your classes?
I teach the six-step form on Mondays at noon. We start with a gentle stretch for warm-ups, Ch’i Kung for balance, and then the six-step T’ai Chi form repeated three times. Due to the nature of T’ai Chi, the longer form is hard to teach in a drop-in class, but repeating the very short six-step form gives the same benefits as the longer one. Once students feel comfortable with that, I introduce some of the ten principles of T’ai Chi.
 
My teaching is informed by 3 Ms: (1) Martial arts because T’ai Chi is based on it, and we have to know how each physical posture is related to fighting skills; (2) Chinese Medicine because we have 360 meridians in the body and each posture of T’ai Chi works with different meridians and organ systems and when you take the correct posture, you’re activating various internal organs; and (3) Mediation because once you’re no longer thinking about what posture comes next, you fall into a relaxed state. Your mind becomes very clear and you achieve stillness in movement.
 
Q. What does being a T’ai Chi instructor mean to you?
Many things. It means from beginning to end, I have to be 100 hundred percent with my students, paying attention and accommodating my teaching to different learning styles so I can help improve their form. I have the honorable responsibility of presenting traditional forms and techniques to my students, and I take that seriously. I also think it’s about being compassionate—allowing students and myself to make mistakes and saying that’s okay. That’s a part of empowering students, but it also requires that I keep learning even while I’m teaching. I need to check myself constantly: Am I healthy? Can I show the movements correctly? Do I have inner peace? Only then can I give the gift of T’ai Chi. As a teacher, I try to lead students to the door, but it is up to them to improve. Like the proverb, “I will teach you quan (fist or boxing) but not gong (everyday practice).”
 
Q. What do you want people to take away from your classes?
I want them to slow down because, in the West, people are always in a hurry. I think Western individualistic culture causes people to focus too much on instant gratification. As a result, we have less emphasis on our mental health. When people learn T’ai Chi, often they want to go to the next posture before learning the basics, which doesn’t work well with their bodies. T’ai Chi is an opportunity to be present in every moment. Often, we are too busy forcing something to happen. Letting go of our plans, self-judgements, and ambitions allows the natural rhythm of life to be present. 
 
Q. How does T’ai Chi benefit college students in particular?
T’ai Chi incorporates everything. If you do the full 100-step form, which usually takes one hour to complete, it works with every part of your body and mind, starting from the bone marrow and out. Because T’ai Chi focuses on movements, we have to start internally and check what’s happening within ourselves. Without that, we cannot ground ourselves to feel what we’re doing with our bodies. It forces you to take things slow and consider what’s within your body in order to keep a good balance with people around you and your surroundings. Both meditation and T’ai Chi have a powerful effect on the mind, cultivating a stillness that serves to increase focus, reduce stress, and boost cognitive skills. Martial art forms train your brain to help you retain more information, stay focused on the task at hand, make quicker decisions, and not react in a fight-or-flight mode as much. We can go within ourselves and come back with a different way of dealing with things.