Thirty five years ago, Stan Swartz was nearly arrested while doing tai chi in a park near Washington, D.C.
"There were about four police cars with flashing lights that pulled up and surrounded me. I think they were worried that I was going crazy," said Swartz, 65, of Squirrel Hill, a tai chi instructor.
No such mistake was made Saturday at Bird Park in Mt. Lebanon, Pa., where World Tai Chi Day was observed for the sixth year with demonstrations and workshops.
"People are more aware of tai chi than they used to be. It's also easier to find places to study it," said David Clippinger of Mt. Lebanon, owner of Still Mountain T'ai Chi and Chi Kung, a studio that runs the Mt. Lebanon event.
Tai chi and Chi Kung -- a simplified version of tai chi -- are ancient Chinese forms of exercise that blend physical movement with deep and meditative breathing. The regimen boosts energy, cultivates physical and emotional balance, and instills spiritual and physical well-being, say those who practice it.
Broad awareness among Americans of tai chi probably began around the time of President Richard Nixon's 1972 trip to China, Swartz said. "Many in the U.S. probably at least saw it on television at that point," he said.
Nearly four decades later, tai chi classes are routine features at recreation centers and church halls.
"Tai chi has been offered here for at least 12 years," said Mike Diehl, director of the Department of Parks and Recreation in Cranberry, Pa. Participants in Cranberry's program tend to be in their 40s, 50s and 60s. "When you are around 40, you realize that your life is not working, your body is not working -- that's often the age in which people start," Swartz said. Both Swartz's and Clippenger's students have included people referred by doctors. Some studies suggest those who regularly practice tai chi can experience relief from arthritis, back pain, fibromyalgia, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome and hypertension. "It's good for treating high blood pressure, for balance and control. When you say it's a martial art, that sort of scares people away -- they think it's like the high kicks in karate, which it's not," said Clippinger, who is also a Buddhist priest. "It helps me get out the way of other people's aggression," said Stacey Waite, 32, of Regent Square, a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Pittsburgh. Waite, who first studied tai chi at a summer class at Pitt, said it has improved hismood, balance and coordination. "If I drop a can of tomatoes out of the cabinet, I always catch it now," he said.
Those who practice it say most everything about tai chi runs counter to the instant gratification that dominates much of American culture -- even the frenetic way many Americans exercise. "It is a moving meditation," Swartz said of tai chi's elaborate and precise movements. "It takes quite a while to get good. You are a beginner for 10 years, and Western people are very impatient." It's that never-ending quest to get better that attracts people like Jesse Prentiss, 37, of Squirrel Hill, a computer network analyst. "I like things that you can work on over a long period of time. I like the learning process," said Prentiss, who started studying with Clippinger four years ago.