| The room is completely quiet as adult students of all ages line up on the hard, shiny floor. Teacher Bob Kipper stands in the front row, dressed in loose-fitting Asian garb. Two dozen people all begin to move as one, slowly and evenly, executing exacting movements in circular patterns.
The class is T'ai Chi Ch'uan, a mind and body workout at the Danville Community Center on Front Street.
"T'ai Chi is always moving," said Kipper. It is an excellent way to strengthen both the mind and the body.
The class goes through an entire slow set together, then breaks into different levels. Longtime students help the beginners, and Kipper works with another advanced group.
T'ai Chi has a reputation as a strengthening class, to keep seniors from falling, because studies have been done in that area, said Kipper. But it was designed as a marshal art and is good for all adults. T'ai Chi emphasizes relaxation and inner calm, he explained.
Kipper, who lives in Alamo and owns a software company in Walnut Creek, used to be a runner.
"Running is great if you have a perfectly engineered body, but it is a lot of pounding and I had to find something else," he said.
He tried swimming and became a water safety instructor. But swimming, of course, requires a pool plus he said it takes a long time to get a good workout in the water.
He had a friend who had studied under a T'ai Chi master in Los Angeles, so Kipper gave it a try.
"There are a lot of similarities with running," he said. "They both follow a course, so to speak, and make your legs stronger."
There is nothing better than T'ai Chi for leg strength or balance, he noted.
"It is a regenerative type program. We get on one leg and hold the posture as we move back and forth," Kipper said. "It's the best exercise for alpine skiing."
The stretching movements also help make the body limber, toning the muscles while releasing tension. Recent studies at Tufts-New England Medical Center and Emory University also showed a significant reduction in arthritis pain in T'ai Chi practitioners.
"I had one student with a traumatic brain injury," Kipper said. "She was a tri-athlete and had had a bike wreck."
T'ai Chi is a centuries-old self-defense discipline, and T'ai Chi Ch'uan literally means "Supreme Ultimate Fist." Kipper practices the classical long Yang form, as taught by Master Tung Kai Ying, and his father and grandfather. Kipper is a senior student of Master Tung and has studied directly with him for more than 19 years.
When student Margaret Elliott of Alamo told Kipper she was vacationing in France, he put her in touch with another student of Master Tung, named Sophie, who invited Elliott to join the Paris class.
"It was just like here, beginning and advanced together, only in an older building, from the 1880s," recalled Elliott. "No one spoke English except Sophie."
"In Europe the government promotes it as a health class," Kipper said. "A lot of instructors are financed by the government."
Elliott, who gives her age as "over 70," has been practicing T'ai Chi for six-and-a-half years.
"I always liked group exercise classes," she said. "I ended up having knee surgery for loose cartilage and the therapist at Kaiser mentioned T'ai Chi."
The first class she tried was "kind of wimpy," she said, and did not involve the brain and muscle. Then she tried Kipper's class in Danville.
"It's taught in the old-fashioned way and involves a lot of memory," she said. "Plus you have to concentrate to remember what's coming next. It seems slow and easy but it takes strength and balance. You learn to fill one leg and empty the other."
She said it is a total workout, good for the knees and the back.
"At the beginning, people stand taller and take shorter steps," she noted. "As you develop more strength in the legs, you realize if you are lower, you have more balance. You get all of the weight on one foot."
Elliott said T'ai Chi appeals to some as a marshal art: Every movement prepares one for opponents, relying on yielding to aggression and using the aggressors' weight and movement against them. Others, like herself, use it for conditioning.
It is also an aerobic workout, Kipper said, as the class advances through the movements toward the fast form.
"But you'd be surprised how just the slow set gets to you in class," he added.
An entire slow set of T'ai Chi uses every muscle group in the body, said Kipper. It is rooted in traditional Chinese medicine and improves circulation and balance, plus helps relax and strengthen the nervous system.
Kipper has been teaching T'ai Chi for the town for 10 years and will start a new session Tuesday, Jan. 8. He finds it the perfect exercise, noting, "This has evolved over 5,000 years."
T'ai Chi can be learned by anyone, regardless of age, sex or athletic ability, he added. He hopes people looking for a way to feel better in the new year will join him.
TONE BODY, RELEASE TENSION
What: T'ai Chi Ch'uan
Who: Town of Danville
Where: Community Center, 420 Front St., Danville
When: Tuesdays, Jan. 8-March 11; beginners 7:15-8:30 p.m.; advanced class afterward
Cost: $100 residents; $120 non-residents
Dress: Comfortable clothing and flat-soled, flexible shoes
To register: Call 314-3400 or visit town Web site: www.ci.danville.ca.us/
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