In the basement of Penrose Hospital, a group of eight men and women push and pull chi, work with yin and yang and pretend they’re tigers pacing their cages.
It’s not a play group for adults; it’s a walking yoga class, also known as baguazhang, a martial arts style that dates to 19th century China. They meet Friday mornings for an hour-long session with Master Martin Kelly, a third-degree black belt in aiki-jujitsu, who came to town in 1998 to teach judo and Taekwondo at the Olympic Training Center.
Mind you, this walking yoga looks nothing like the yoga commonly practiced at studios and gyms. There are no downward facing dogs, warrior poses or time spent in savasana, though the practice does incorporate many references to animals and the elements, such as water.
Chinese bodyguards used baguazhang to protect the emperor, and it’s still the preferred style of the Chinese police. Those in the bodyguard and protection business also use baguazhang to protect their clients, Kelly wrote on selfcarearts.com.
Kelly once provided security at public venues and for celebrities, and Self Care Arts is his health and self-defense business. He offers martial arts classes throughout the week in multiple locations around the city and state, including aikido, qigong, tai chi and Fighting for Fitness sessions.
“It’s the oldest form of documented yoga,” Kelly told his class on a recent Friday. He praises the physical activity for helping improve balance, strengthening the heart and lungs and coordinating the brain with the body. It’s ideal for older bodies that have more of a tendency to trip and fall, or those who can’t tolerate the up and down of yoga — getting on the floor and back up. Baguazhang keeps the practitioner’s body upright throughout class.
“It’s a lot harder than sitting in that rocking chair at Cracker Barrel,” he jokes with his students.
Class starts with a slight squat, one foot slightly forward of the other. Kelly instructs them to rock back and forth on both feet, lifting the heel and then the toes to recruit the muscles in their quadriceps and hips. It doesn’t look like a big movement, but doing it repeatedly for a couple of minutes on both sides is probably quite a quad burner. Kelly says it’s also therapeutic for those with plantar fasciitis.
The movement activates the gallbladder and spleen meridians, says Kelly, who has studied baguazhang with leading masters in the U.S. and China. Chinese medicine focuses on a dozen main meridians, or invisible channels, that circulate qi (pronounced chee) or energy throughout the body. He often cites which meridians are stimulated by particular movements and which muscles are developed.
Later in class, Kelly introduces the tiger pacing the cage sequence, guiding students to pretend they’re a tiger at the zoo during feeding time. They keep their eyes focused on the bucket of food as they pace their cage. These movements are gentle, but they work the body, Kelly says, and offer a cardiovascular component that tai chi, another Chinese martial art, does not. And it’s always beneficial to learn new movement patterns, which can help with neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to create new neural connections.
Percy Pellerin has studied tai chi with Kelly for about four years and has done baguazhang off and on for 10 months. He’s using the practice to improve his balance, physically and mentally.
“I learned how bad my balance is,” said Pellerin, 68. “I’m more conscious of that than ever, that I need to focus more. It’s like an outward manifestation of my lack of focus generally. That’s one of the things I like about working with Martin — I see no end to improvement.”
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