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Tai Chi brings stress down, strength and balance up

NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: STEPHANIE HAUGEN - Dave Barrett has been certified by the International Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan Association as an instructor and trains directly with senior members of the Yang family in China.After living near Timber with his family for 25 years and working as a storyteller in schools and libraries, Dave Barrett now lives in Multnomah Village in southwest Portland and teaches Tai Chi full time. He is the director of the Tai Chi Center in Forest Grove and also teaches at Reed College, the Trainer’s Club, Portland Ballet, Avamere Hillsboro, and the Virginia Garcia Wellness Center in Cornelius. He still boards two horses near Hagg Lake.

News-Times: What kinds of people come to your classes and why do they come? All ages? Fit people? Weak people? What life events or experiences spark them to take Tai Chi?

Dave Barrett: Many people are interested in Tai Chi because they have heard or read about it as a type of exercise suitable for older folks. I teach a wide age range, from college age to those in their late eighties and early nineties. Many are looking to rebuild balance skills, leg strength and coordination. Most seek out Tai Chi as a stress-reducing activity.

NT: How did you first come to be interested in Tai Chi?

DB: I began studying Tai Chi in 1977. I was a theatre major at Reed College seeking techniques to gain control of my physical instrument and deal with the anxieties of performance.

NT: Does Tai Chi mainly improve people’s balance and strength?

DB: Tai Chi focuses on physical refinements in posture that lead to better balance skills.

The slow pace of the motions gradually builds full body strength without excessive demands on the cardiovascular system.

NT: How does Tai Chi differ from other martial arts in how it affects people’s health?

DB: Tai Chi is one of China’s internal martial art systems. It emphasizes soft, fluid, circular and relaxed techniques. It promotes the relaxation response contrary to the adrenaline response that is activated by hard, external martial arts. The emphasis is on maintaining a calm sense of equilibrium when dealing with threat environments.

NT: Regarding Tai Chi as a strength-building activity, how does that part differ from going to a gym, where people can also improve their strength?

DB: Modern fitness machines tend to focus on specific muscle groups. Tai Chi motions exercise the body’s entire kinetic chain and promote unified body strength.

NT: Is it possible to injure yourself while practicing Tai Chi? If so, what kinds of injuries have you seen?NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: STEPHANIE HAUGEN - Dave Barrett has been certified by the International Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan Association as an instructor and trains directly with senior members of the Yang family in China.

DB: Most injuries from Tai Chi are the result of poor instruction, mainly in arranging and supporting the stances and leg positions. The knees need to be correctly aligned, if not they can be uncomfortable during and after practice. Overall, injuries from Tai Chi are quite rare when compared with aerobics and other fast-paced exercises.

NT: How long does it take to see health improvements after someone starts Tai Chi? What was your own experience? What do your students say?

DB: Surprisingly, the benefits of Tai Chi are most pronounced in those who have little or no exercise in their lives. The gentle motions nourish strength and improvements in balance skills are most appreciated by older individuals. Of course, these benefits accrue with regular practice. There is a saying in China, “Exercise every day, benefit every day. Exercise occasionally, occasional benefit. No exercise, no benefit.”

NT: How often does someone simply not connect with Tai Chi? When that happens, what do they usually have the most trouble with?NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: STEPHANIE HAUGEN - Dave Barrett has been certified by the International Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan Association as an instructor and trains directly with senior members of the Yang family in China.

DB: Tai Chi is a discipline that requires regular class attendance, home practice and study. It draws from a deep well of traditional Chinese culture that includes martial arts, philosophy, and self-cultivation techniques. It requires patience and perseverance to progress. For some, it is easier to work the machines with a trainer in attendance. Both approaches are valuable in building proper exercise skill sets.