Zhou Xiaoying (center), Jean Baptiste Boclé (left), and Lorraine Salles (right)

One of the not-so-hidden treasures of Greenpoint is the YMCA, which provides a slew of workout options in addition to community services for a fraction of the cost of most commercial gyms or private centers.  The true strength – and occasional weakness, depending on the skill of the instructor and the mix of participants – of the facility are the classes.  We’ve recently covered Punk Rope, and today I’m going to let you know what’s going on in the gym with the odd music every Sunday at 1:15:  Tai Chi.

The instructor, “Joan” Zhou Xiaoying (周晓瑛) is a soft-spoken woman with an incredibly calm presence who comes to us from Ningbo, a city located in China’s Zhejiang province near Shanghai.  Although she would never brag about it herself and would probably maim me with a crutch (she can do that)for saying so, she is a master of the art with over 30 years experience and numerous competition wins, including six gold medals from the American International Martial Arts Competition.  In class at the YMCA, she is incredibly welcoming and patient with new students, and while her skills often surpass her English, her thorough knowledge of the forms she teaches allows her to work through any confusion.  She teaches two sessions:  the first, at 1:15 on Sundays, begins with opening light exercises that are very meditative, transitions into walking exercises, and then primarily focuses on teaching and practicing the 24-form chuan-style Tai Chi sequence.  This form has a fascinating history in that it was designed by the Chinese government in 1956 to simplify the more complex styles to retain the positive health benefits while being easier to perform, allowing it to be practiced more widely in the country.  In the second session, which begins directly following the first at 2:15, meditation, more complex forms, and the partner exercise called pushing hands are taught.

The class is comprised of an interesting mix of mostly local participants.  One, Lorraine Salles, grew up in Greenpoint and has been practicing Tai Chi at the YMCA since 2003.  Another, Jean Baptiste Boclé, has been at it for five years and has competed in several competitions.  Both report benefits that I, at five months of practice, can echo: a pervasive sense of calm following the classes, increased strength and improved muscle condition overall, and a greatly enhanced sense of balance and of one’s own body.  I’ll note that I mean balance in the purely physical sense: I can stand on one leg or hold myself upright on a shifting subway much better than I could a few months ago, and I’ve noticed that this has greatly improved other aspects of my workout, most notably the weight lifting.

The class is incredibly welcoming, and I have only one piece of advice for the interested newcomer: plan on leaving your first class totally bewildered.  It will take at least 3-5 sessions before the motions begin to make sense to you on a physical level, and it’s imperative to work through it the first couple times until you start to understand the whole.  I promise it is worth the time once you do, and you’ll be hard pressed to ever find another chance to work with a master like Zhou Xiaoying in such a direct and inexpensive setting.

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